Diane di Prima was first associated with the Beat poetry movement before becoming involved with LeRoi Jones, with whom she coedited the mimeo poetry zine The Floating Bear and started the New York Poets Theatre.
The Living Theatre’s Monday Night Series, held during the acting company’s night off, hosted many kinds of artists: musicians John Herbert McDowell and Bob Dylan, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, poets Diane di Prima and Frank O’Hara, dancers James Waring and Freddie Herko. In his memoir Fug You, Ed Sanders recalled that the Living Theatre “was an important place in my personal world. I had heard historic poetry readings there; I had first seen Bob Dylan perform as part of the General Strike for Peace in February ’62 . . . [and] I had typed the stencils for the recent issue of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts.” It was this latter endeavor—his infamous mimeographed poetry zine, Fuck You—that established Sanders as a ubiquitous downtown presence. When the Living Theatre staged Paul Goodman’s The Cave, the group was fully prepared to go to jail. One scene contained three uses of the word fuck—something that was unheard-of—but these ahead-of-their-time punks staged it anyway.
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Mimeo publications circulated among an interconnected group of artists working in a variety of mediums. The mailing list for Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones’s semi-monthly newsletter The Floating Bear was a who’s who of the underground poetry, film, visual art, and Off-Off-Broadway worlds, which facilitated artistic and personal exchanges between these audiences on the page as well as in person. The only way to get a copy of their stapled poetry zine was to know someone who worked on it, and Andy Warhol’s name was likely added to the mailing list through his association with printing assistant and poet Gerard Malanga. Soon after the artist received an issue of The Floating Bear that described one of the “haircut parties” held in Billy Linich’s glimmering Lower East Side apartment, Andy began shooting his Haircut movies. Linich performed typing and collating tasks for The Floating Bear until he had a falling-out with di Prima, so he shifted allegiances to Andy Warhol’s Factory scene and became known as Billy Name. Ted Berrigan got to know Ed Sanders through these mimeo zines, which anticipated the kinds of back and forth that occur on today’s social media platforms. They often contained gossip and announcements about what was going on downtown, which was another way Warhol and others kept their ear to the ground. They also shared images via mimeo publications, like the time Warhol provided Sanders with the cover for an issue of Fuck You (a black-and-white frame from his 1964 movie Couch). Poet Ted Berrigan recalled, “There got to be groups, because there were a lot of people . . . because we had a magazine—that’s how you get a group, I think, you start a magazine.” The zines were distributed on the streets, via mail, and in select bookstores that served as important hubs in the downtown’s social networks.
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“I worked part-time at the Eighth Street Bookshop,” Andrei Codrescu said, “the greatest literary bookstore of all time.” The downstairs room housed the traditional books with spines; poetry mimeos could be found in the store’s second-floor room, which was dedicated to books from smaller publishers, such as Something Else Press. “The Eighth Street Bookshop was pivotal to a young poet in those days,” Ed Sanders recalled. “It was there I monitored little magazines such as Yugen and Kulchur and where I first purchased Allen Ginsberg’s epochal Kaddish and Other Poems.” Eighth Street bustled on the east and west sides of the Village, but the stretch between Fifth and Second Avenues seemed cursed. Odd-ball businesses—such as a French art store that employed both a classical painter and a modern painter, wearing berets—would open and then disappear, though the area came alive around the Eighth Street Bookshop. Another jewel in the downtown’s literary crown was the Paperbook Gallery, on Sixth Avenue around the corner from the Eighth Street Bookshop. Cabaret performer and Off-Off-Broadway music composer Paul Serrato managed the Paperbook, which stayed open until midnight—a practice that encouraged people to socialize. “The area was like the Times Square of the Village,” he said, “In those days, everybody hung out there, and Paperbook Gallery was the epicenter of all the independent publishing.” Frank O’Hara, Ted Joans, Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones, and others came in to drop off their mimeographed publications, which were displayed on a series of shelves that looked like mail slots.
Flaming Creatures debuted in 1963 and was shown three times in early 1964 at the Gramercy Art Theatre without incident until the police issued a summons against the movie and the theater was forced to halt its screenings. The resourceful Jonas Mekas continued the screenings at the Bowery Theatre in the East Village, which was then hosting Diane di Prima’s New York Poets Theatre company. On March 3, 1964, an undercover police officer in the audience arrested as many people as he could, including Mekas. “He watched the film,” Mekas recalled, “and I knew, ‘That’s a cop, and he may arrest me.’ I even had sandwiches in my pocket prepared already. Chicken sandwiches. I knew I might be arrested. They had seen an advertisement and the police just came in. They were waiting until the end of the film. No big fuss. I just spent a couple nights in jail.” Future gay rights activist Harvey Milk was another audience member who was thrown in the police wagon and taken to the Ninth Precinct house on East Fifth Street. Mekas was sentenced to sixty days in a prison workhouse in 1964, an unsettling irony for the survivor of a Nazi labor camp who came to America for the freedoms it offered. His sentence was eventually suspended, and fifty-one years later prosecuting attorney Gerald Harris reached out to Mekas. “I feel I owe you an apology,” he wrote in a 2015 email. “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.” The New York Times reported that Mekas replied immediately: “Your surprise generous apology accepted!”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Freddie Herko was a premier dancer at the Judson Dance Theater—a wild, beautiful man whose performances were charged with his eccentric persona—until he got sucked into the drug scene. Beat poet and Off-Off-Broadway playwright Diane di Prima was a good friend of Herko; he told her that he “needed speed to push his body so he could dance the way he wanted to. He felt otherwise he didn’t have a chance; he had come to dance too late in life to make it work for him.” Over time, Herko mixed amphetamines with LSD and other drugs, all of which shattered his physical and mental health. “He had seen his dancer’s body with acid eyes,” di Prima recalled, “and seen how he had ravaged it with speed and neglect. Or, as he put it, he had ‘destroyed his house.’ ” Michael Smith shared an apartment with Johnny Dodd at 5 Cornelia Street, where Herko spent the final moments of his life. “It was only a matter of time, and nobody could do anything about it,” Smith said. “You can’t stop people from taking drugs. He was just kind of fading away.” On October 27, 1964, Herko stopped by the apartment when Smith was away and asked Dodd if he could take a bath—after which he rose from the water, put Mozart’s Great Mass in C on the turntable, and began dancing around the room. Dodd just sat there, feeling like something was amiss, then Herko danced out the open window and leapt five stories to his death.
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
John Vaccaro, Diane di Prima, and their friends also helped Jack Smith with his 1963 film Normal Love, which was shot over the course of three days in Connecticut. It was a sharp contrast from the baroque black-and-white imagery of Flaming Creatures, his previous film. “Normal Love, blazing with gorgeous color, left no holds barred,” di Prima recalled. “So many sequins, lizards, rhinestones, pythons, so much stained glass, makeup, art, flesh, costume jewelry, papier-mâché, spray paint, had never before seduced the filmgoer’s eye.” When Vaccaro formed the Play-House of the Ridiculous in 1965, Smith helped design sets and costumes, which made the shows sparkle and glow. “There was no one person who invented glitter,” Agosto Machado said, “but it was Jack Smith who gave a sense of purpose to it. In the early 1960s, Jack was the first one who used it in a way that made it copyable. The Play-House of the Ridiculous loved to use glitter, and Hibiscus and the Cockettes also loved glitter.” Play-House performer Michael Arian concurred. “John always gave a tip of the hat to Jack Smith,” Arian said. “Jack was the original gay glitter freak, and John always acknowledged that he got a lot of his sensibilities from him.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
John Vaccaro’s combative nature was perhaps rooted in his working-class Italian immigrant background, which he desperately wanted to escape. “He reminded me of my Italian grandmother,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Sicilian and hardcore.” Vaccaro first performed comedy in a nightclub act while at Ohio State University and then began doing plays like Waiting for Godot; after graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City. “When I got to New York,” he said, “I had a loft and everybody used to come to my place on 9 Great Jones Street—artists, jazz musicians. I ended up paying seventy-five bucks a month. I had a big record collection, and we’d hang out and listen. I had everything. Jazz and the Beatles and stuff like that. I was heavy into rhythm and blues, but mostly jazz.” Vaccaro got to know Thelonious Monk when the pianist regularly performed alongside other jazz legends at the Five Spot Café, which was frequented by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and other writers. “John was coming out of the world of beatnik poetry readings, with bands playing in the background,” said Penny Arcade. “His friends were all these big jazz guys, and also he was an intellectual. When I met him, he had just stopped working as a rare book appraiser.” He became part of the New York Poets Theatre, which Diane di Prima ran out of the Bowery Theatre on East Tenth Street, near Third Avenue. The first show they mounted was the Frank O’Hara play Loves Labor, with Vaccaro part of a cast of twenty cavorting on the tiny stage. “There was a screaming queen in a tiger skin playing a shepherd, with many dancers for his sheep,” di Prima recalled. “Freddie Herko in a black cape was Paris; John Vaccaro, slim and monocled, with a top hat, played Metternich, and no less a personage than the ‘great’ freak show artist and drag queen Frankie Francine portrayed Venus.”