Eric Emerson was discovered by Andy Warhol while dancing in the audience at a Velvet Underground show at the Dom and was promptly cast in several Warhol films; he was also Chris Stein’s roommate while he was in one of downtown’s first glam bands, the Magic Tramps.
In April 1966, the Velvet Underground began their residency playing with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom, where Factory newcomer Mary Woronov joined in. “Gerard Malanga felt we would be center stage and liven things up,” Woronov said. “So he brought me on with the black leather suit and a whip, and we worked out a dance with a sort of S&M kind of theme.” Their routines were supposed to be dark and theatrical, but they sometimes veered into goofier realms. “For ‘Waiting for the Man,’ I would lift weights,” Woronov said. “For ‘Heroin,’ Gerard would run around with a plastic needle that was two feet long and shoot up. It was sort of an act, to music.” Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground unleashed sheets of sound as Warhol slipped colored gelatin slides over film projector lenses or just stood on the balcony, observing the crowded scene. One night he saw “a small, muscular blond kid make a ballet leap that practically spanned the dance floor.” Warhol promptly went downstairs and met the young man, Eric Emerson, whose good looks and magnetic personality secured him a spot in several Warhol films. He was cast alongside Nico and Woronov in The Chelsea Girls and appeared in Lonesome Cowboys, San Diego Surf, and Heat.
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966 but wasn’t released until the following year. Bucking the music industry norm of securing a contract with a record label, Warhol and the Velvets went the independent route—recording it themselves. “The album says, ‘Produced by Andy Warhol,’ ” Sterling Morrison noted. “Well, it was produced in the sense that a movie is produced. He put up the money. We made the album ourselves and then took it around because we knew that no one was going to sign us off the streets. And we didn’t want any A&R department telling us what songs we should record.” Unfortunately, Factory scenester Eric Emerson played a fateful role in torpedoing the Velvet Underground’s (slim) chances of commercial success soon after the release of their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album’s back cover originally featured a shot of the band playing with an image of Emerson’s face from The Chelsea Girls projected prominently in the background. Emerson either needed drug money or was simply broke, so he threatened to sue the record label because he hadn’t signed a photo release. Verve Records pulled the album from record stores and redacted Emerson’s face from the back cover, which was a disaster for the band. “The album vanished from the charts almost immediately in June 1967,” Sterling Morrison lamented, “just when it was about to enter the Top 100. It never returned to the charts.”
Jackie Curtis wrote the underground hit Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. “La MaMa to me was an acknowledgment that we kind of made it,” recalled Tony Zanetta. “It was very respectable. So if Jackie Curtis did Vain Victory there, it was taken seriously, even though it was a total mess.” The show featured Curtis alongside a star-studded downtown cast that included Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Taylor Mead, Mario Montez, and Agosto Machado, among many others. Vain Victory was Machado’s first Off-Off-Broadway show, even though he had been hanging around the scene throughout the 1960s. “It never occurred to me that I would cross the footlights, but with the encouragement of Jackie Curtis I suddenly was on the other side, and people were so welcoming,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, because I don’t sing, dance, or act—and yet it was like, ‘Be part of our show!’ ” Eric Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps played Vain Victory’s backing music, and the glitter-slathered frontman had his own solo number as a naked cowboy, wearing little more than chaps. “There was glitter all over his pubic hair and what have you,” Machado said. “He was not self-conscious about nudity because he had done that in Warhol films.” Darling performed as a wheelchair-bound mermaid who was sad about having a tail but no legs (Woodlawn took that role after Darling left Vain Victory, accidentally rolling over the edge of the stage and into the audience during her first night as the mermaid).
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Andy Warhol discovered Eric Emerson dancing at a 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, he was promptly cast in The Chelsea Girls and several other Factory films. By 1971, Emerson had become the frontman of one of New York’s earliest glam rock bands, the Magic Tramps. He would wear giant glittery angel wings and other eye-popping accouterments onstage; when he chose not to wear clothes he just showered himself in gold glitter dust that flaked off when he flexed his muscles—lasciviously staring at some of the boys in the audience. “Eric Emerson was this beautiful blond boy,” said Jim Fouratt, who used to see him in the back room of Max’s Kansas City. “First of all, he was working class. He wasn’t a rich kid. And he was very pretty, but he was also very strong—handsome, sexy, sort of masculine.” The Magic Tramps started a residency at Max’s in early 1971 after owner Mickey Ruskin gave them access to the upstairs room, which had largely gone unused since the Velvet Underground played their final gigs with Lou Reed a year earlier. The Magic Tramps outgrew Max’s as the city’s glam rock scene flowered, so Emerson scouted for a new space to play and stumbled across the fledgling Mercer Arts Center. Emerson helped fix up Mercer’s in exchange for rehearsal space, and when it officially opened in November 1971 his band performed regular cabaret sets in the venue’s Blue Room. “I met Eric when I went to see the Dolls for the first time,” Blondie’s Chris Stein recalled. “The whole scene was very accessible, hanging out backstage and all that. Eric was a great character.” Stein became the Magic Tramps’ informal roadie after he booked them to play a Christmas party at the School of Visual Arts, where he was a student, and the two became roommates in a welfare apartment on First Street and First Avenue.
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
On August 3, 1973, the Mercer’s walls—which were structurally linked to a neighboring derelict hotel—had been ominously groaning all day. At 5:10, just twenty minutes before the first scheduled Friday evening performances, the hotel “fell like a pancake,” said fire chief John T. O’Hagan. The Magic Tramps were in their rehearsal space when the building began shaking, so Eric Emerson and his bandmates ran for their lives. Alan Vega happened to be walking down Mercer Street about an hour after the hotel fell, while the dust was still settling. “It looked like a bomb had been dropped on it,” he said. “You could see the Blue Room, where we used to play, and it was just surrounded by rubble.” Only part of the Mercer Arts Center building came down with the hotel, but the rest of it had to be torn down for safety reasons. The fall of the Broadway Central Hotel epitomized New York’s precarious condition in the 1970s, when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy, its infrastructure was crumbling, and crime was rampant. Those who witnessed the collapse recalled seeing rats fleeing the scene and fanning out into the streets; likewise, the artists and musicians who frequented Mercer’s scrambled to find new places to perform. During the dying days of glam rock, many of them began populating a Bowery bar that became known as CBGB, where the final act of this drama played out.
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.
Just as Eric Emerson had helped kick-start the scene at the Mercer Arts Center by offering his carpentry skills to fix up the venue, he did much the same for Kristal back when it was Hilly’s (Kristal didn’t change the name to CBGB until late 1973). Emerson frequented the Hells Angels clubhouse and spent time in the area, and around 1972 he convinced Kristal to let him and his Magic Tramps bandmate Sesu Coleman build a small stage there. “I saw the Magic Tramps at CBGB before I saw them at Mercer’s,” said Chris Stein, “though it might not have been called CBGB at that point, maybe it was still called Hilly’s on the Bowery. I just randomly walked into the bar and saw them play.” Between 1972 and 1973, Suicide, the Magic Tramps, Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth, and a variety of other downtown musicians performed on that stage.
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Chris Stein was roommates with Eric Emerson, who had known Debbie Harry since her days as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, but after all their years downtown Stein and Harry had still never met. “Our paths didn’t really cross,” she said. “I guess it was just a matter of time until we eventually hooked up, but it definitely was directly related to Eric Emerson.” Stein was dazzled by Harry and immediately volunteered himself as the Stilettoes’ musical director. “They didn’t have permanent members,” he said, “just floating musicians, so I became the first permanent member.” The two quickly fell in love, and together they eventually formed the creative core of Blondie. “With the Stilettoes,” Stein said, “there was a lot of theatricality. It was tongue in cheek, and very campy.” Their embrace of artifice was reflected in the lyrics to one of their earliest numbers, “Platinum Blonde,” the only song that made its way into Blondie sets. “I wanna be a platinum blonde / Just like all the sexy stars,” Harry sang. “Marilyn and Jean, Jane, Mae and Marlene / Yeah, they really had fun / In luminescent DayGlo shades / Walk into a bar and I’ll have it made.” (She sometimes ended that couplet with “. . . and I hope I get laid.”) “The Stilettoes were kind of a combination of Elda’s idea of creating a campy, kitschy, trashy True Confessions image,” Harry explained, “and me wanting to emulate the style of girl groups like the Shangri-Las, but with more attitude. We were real sleazy and would dance around the stage in really trashy clothes. In fact, sometimes our clothes actually came from the trash—boots, jackets, lots of stuff could be found in decent condition. That zebra print dress I wore was made from a pillow case that was found in the garbage.”
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore