Lisa Jane Persky first met Harry Koutoukas in 1965, when she was about ten years old and her family moved into 87 Christopher Street; by 1973, Koutoukas had cast Persky in her New York stage debut at La MaMa, which was followed by a role in Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars opposite Divine in 1976, the same year she became a founding staffer for the New York Rocker and shot Debbie Harry’s first cover photo.
Greenwich Village was filled with eccentrics and bohemians, but it was also where many families and kids resided, such as Lisa Jane Persky. “This place had a certain history in it,” she said. “It called to people who wanted to feel comfortable being different.” When Persky’s parents first moved to the Village in 1962, they stayed in a nearby apartment building off Sheridan Square. One of the first sights she saw while looking outside her bedroom window was Bob Dylan, who was sporting the same coat he wore on his first album cover. Bibbe Hansen was another kid who grew up in the Village—living at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D, and on Great Jones Street. Her junior high school was in Greenwich Village, where her teachers imbued students with a utopian outlook. “One of the things to really get about these times is how incredibly optimistic we were, how incredibly blessed we felt,” Hansen recalled. “We conquered childhood diseases and diphtheria and smallpox and polio, and we were conquering the civil rights injustices.” It felt like so many evils were being eradicated, and they were inheriting a new world in which the seeds of social justice were finally bearing fruit. When Persky attended P.S. 41, near the progressive New School for Social Research, she recalled, “It was hammered into us that we were in a melting pot. So I thought by the time I’m an adult, there will be so much interracial marriage that we’d all just be one color.” It was common to see interracial couples in the neighborhood, along with other sights that would have scandalized people in other parts of the country.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The street scene on Christopher functioned like an extended family for those who had been rejected by their own relatives, an embracing place where social networks formed. “There was no internet,” Agosto Machado said, “so how do you find out what’s happening? You go out on the street and you can hang out in Sheridan Square, Washington Square Park, and you’d find out more or less what people were doing.” He likened it to street theater, with different people making an entrance—“Hi, girl! What are you doing?”—and putting on a show. Roller-Arena-Skates (also known as Rolla-Reena Skeets) glided around on cobblestone streets while wearing a soiled dress and holding a wand, looking like a shabby Glinda the Good Witch. Another street character named Bambi cruised Christopher Street with his little dog, day and night, until some queens found him frozen to death one winter evening. That night, Lisa Jane Persky huddled on the stoop with her neighbors Rosie and Ernestine as they watched the cops zip Bambi into the body bag. The next day, he was back in his spot sitting on the stoop across the street; it turned out Bambi had awakened in the morgue. “I don’t know who was more scared,” he told Lisa Jane Persky, “me or the guy who heard me scream.” Machado fondly remembered the vibrancy of Sheridan Square and Christopher Street, where people socialized and made connections. “Oh, I’m going to sing in the chorus at the Judson Church,” someone might tell him, “and why don’t you join?” Agosto added, “There was the Judson Church circle merging dance and Happenings, and Caffe Cino and La MaMa, plus other alternative groups, plus street theater. They were just hanging out, and you expressed yourself on the street, developed your own persona, and then figured out your own place in that world. You could reinvent yourself.”
Lisa Jane Persky entered Harry Koutoukas’s life in 1965, when she was about ten years old and her family moved into 87 Christopher Street. This nineteenth-century tenement apartment building was a microcosm of the neighborhood, hosting everyone from the playwright, Persky, and Yoko Ono to a mother-daughter pair who were always standing at the building’s entrance. Rosie was a diminutive older lady, and her daughter Ernestine was in her forties or fifties. “Harry is not a homosexual,” Rosie would insist. “He is refined.” “The thing about the Village that I really miss now,” Persky said, “there were lots and lots of old ladies in the doorways, just enjoying the night air and hanging out.” In these small residential buildings, neighbors passed each other returning with groceries or coming home from work (if they had jobs, which wasn’t true of Koutoukas). People were coming and going at all times of the day and night, and they inevitably stopped and talked to each other. The surrounding streets were also a mixture of old and new worlds, where openly gay street queens crossed paths with those from more traditionally conservative immigrant backgrounds. Persky also couldn’t help but notice that Christopher Street was a place where many gay men congregated, including Koutoukas. “I remember thinking that Harry was so exotic, because he dressed in a really flamboyant way,” she said, “but to me it was just fashionable and lavish. He had really cool clothes and other stuff. He had a very fanciful way about him that was, to a kid, so attractive—because it was totally genuine, not false.” She recalled that everything was theater to Harry, including the exaggerated way he carried himself while swooping to pick up a bag of groceries, or rounding a corner. He once described these fluid movements to Lisa’s mother as being “like the inside of a washing machine.”
Harry Koutoukas’s apartment was small, dark, and cramped. There was just enough room for a sink and bathtub in the kitchen area, plus a little dining table, and behind that was a small area where the playwright slept. Actor James Hall, another resident of 87 Christopher, recalled, “All kinds of people went up to his apartment—Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni, who wrote Hair—all those guys. His apartment had dragons, creatures, all kinds of wild decorations.” Koutoukas also made an impression on the young Lisa Jane Persky. He dazzled her with his reality-bending stories, such as how his electricity was powered by albino cockroaches that ran on little spinning wheels in his bathtub. “It was like having a real poet in your midst,” she said, “who completely grasped what was going on around him and turned it into something more beautiful, elegant, crazy, exaggerated.” Jane, Lisa’s mother, remembered Harry as a very warm person who made life in the building much more interesting, introducing her to his friends and bringing them by the apartment. “I don’t think Harry ever had a regular job,” she said. “He had some patrons, always, but he also always owed money.” Ono helped Koutoukas from time to time throughout his life, and if bills came when he didn’t have any money, he would stamp it deceased and mail it back—so he could spend what little he had producing his Off-Off-Broadway shows.
From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Lisa Jane Persky’s family bounced around several apartments downtown until, in 1965, she moved with her mother, stepfather, and three young siblings into 87 Christopher Street—a five-floor walkup tenement building where Harry Koutoukas lived for a half century. Located about four blocks south of Jane Jacobs’s residence, it was one of those areas that may very well have been razed to make room for a large housing development if Robert Moses had had his way. Yoko Ono was also living there with her husband, jazz musician Tony Cox. On the evening the family was supposed to move in, Persky stood on the old hexagonal subway tile in the building’s entrance, then walked up the stairs past the metal mailboxes. “We got there about 9:30,” recalled Jane Holley Wilson, Lisa’s mother, “but we couldn’t get into apartment number ten, which we were supposed to move in to, so we knocked and Tony Cox came to the door.” Cox served as the building’s superintendent, along with Ono, who had recently given birth to their daughter, Kyoko. Because they were already living in the apartment Lisa’s family had been promised, Tony put them downstairs, in apartment number one. “I’ll give you the key to your apartment,” Cox said, “but first I want to show you my wife and kid.” The eleven-year-old Persky followed her mother into the apartment, where she saw a pull-down bed with a woman lying facedown with black hair spread out across the white sheets. “It was quite a moment,” Persky recalled, “the baby lying in the bed, and Yoko, black hair spread out. But I didn’t know who Yoko Ono was. I certainly did not understand that as a kid, so I was like, ‘Okay, we saw that. Can we get in our apartment now?’”
It didn’t take long for Lisa Jane Persky to figure out that Yoko Ono wasn’t a typical building superintendent. “Yoko was definitely doing Happenings and Fluxus art–type things,” Persky said, recalling an event Ono held on the rooftop of their building, Morning Piece. “She was always really interesting. I was fascinated by her. She gets the shit end of the stick a lot, but I think she is a miracle of womanhood.” The busy artist sometimes dropped off Kyoko for Lisa and her mother to babysit, telling them she would be back by eleven o’clock that night—though occasionally Ono would return much later. “She would also wait for my mother to leave and then say, ‘You take the baby,’ ” Persky said, “and it was just total nonsense. There were a lot of things about her that were interesting.” While living at 87 Christopher Street, Ono and Cox struggled a great deal in their marriage. “She and Tony had big fights,” Jane Holley Wilson recalled. “It could get uncomfortable.” The couple lived in the apartment next door to Harry Koutoukas, and Ono became good friends with him after having a terrible argument with Cox, who slammed the door and left. “Silence,” Ono recalled. “Then I heard somebody knocking on my door very quietly. That was Harry. He invited me for tea at his apartment. He made tea, never mentioning what he obviously heard through the paper-thin wall. He was very considerate. I have never forgotten that afternoon—and how sweet Harry was.”
One can draw a direct line from Busby Berkeley to the demented glitter spectacles that Hibiscus performed with the Cockettes starting in 1970. “Mom used to take us to the Bleecker Street Cinema,” Jayne Anne Harris said, “and they showed all those Busby Berkeley movies, and Fred Astaire.” Ann Harris brought her kids almost every weekend to see those old films, which they also watched on television in their East Village apartment. “You stayed up past one in the morning and watched, if you dared to stay up that late,” Jayne Ann said, “except we always stayed up that late for theater.” Lisa Jane Persky also saw those films, on the late-night television series Million Dollar Movie. “Everything was glitter, glamour, glory, gold,” she said. “We would all mimic those close-ups. The idea was just to take that glamour and just push it as far as you could. It was making fun of those old movies, but in a loving way. Imagine watching a Busby Berkeley film and thinking, ‘Okay, let’s try that.’ It was a lot of fun to blow it up and make it as audacious and ridiculous as you possibly could.” The revived popularity of those old films can be traced back to the mid-1950s, when Hollywood studios compensated for shrinking profits by licensing their content to television (every major studio except for MGM sold their back catalog of pre-1948 films to distributors that licensed them to broadcasters). This dramatically changed viewers’ relationship to Hollywood, making those movies more readily available for playful appropriation.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In 1969, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved into the Chelsea Hotel after escaping a dangerous Lower East Side loft building and a stint in a fleabag hotel. In this shabby artist-friendly residential hotel, Smith cultivated social connections that led her to become a performer—first on Off-Off-Broadway, then as a poet, and finally as a musician. Stanley Bard, co-owner and manager of the Chelsea, filled the lobby with art created by those who couldn’t pay for their rooms. (Bard not only accepted artwork in lieu of rent money, he also charged artists lower rent than other professionals.) Smith offered Bard the couple’s portfolios as collateral, which secured them Room 1017 for fifty-five dollars a week. “Stanley was real schizophrenic,” Warhol superstar Viva recalled. “He could be extremely generous and then he could be really mean.” Lisa Jane Persky saw both sides of Bard when she worked as an assistant for another Chelsea resident, fashion designer Charles James. “Even though Stanley was a real bastard,” she said, “he did care about the talents of people” (perhaps because he hoped to sell their work). When Persky met “America’s first couturier,” as James was known in his prime, he had been on the downslide for years; James’s friend Harry Koutoukas helped secure her a job as his assistant, which entailed a variety of tasks. “Charles would send me downstairs because I was cute and young, and I would say, ‘Please don’t lean on him right now—he’s not well.’ So Stanley would give him a little more time, and it was always like that for a lot of people in that hotel.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Dolls first threw rent parties at their downtown loft on 119 Chrystie Street before hitting the DIY concert circuit. With Jackie Curtis as the opening act, they played their first proper show in early 1972 in the Hotel Diplomat. The group also had a short residency at a gay bathhouse, the Continental Baths, where Bette Midler regularly performed with Barry Manilow (who sometimes blended in with the patrons by wearing nothing but a white towel). Underground rock, Off-Off-Broadway, and the cabaret scenes converged in the early 1970s, cross-pollinating each other. Midler, for example, had appeared at La MaMa in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets before she leveraged her act at the Continental Baths into pop stardom. Roberta Bayley, who later worked the door at CBGB, noted that the Dolls’ glittery, feminine clothes stood in sharp contrast to their masculine swagger. “That’s what was interesting,” Bayley said, “because these real guy-guys were wearing off-the-shoulder blouses and being very confident in their heterosexuality.” The Dolls had several ties to the fashion world; guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, for instance, was a designer who had a successful clothing company called Truth and Soul. “There were lots of people who wore colorful clothes or scarves or what have you,” said Agosto Machado. “It wasn’t unusual to see a more masculine man with a pink scarf, or have a few of their nails painted different colors.” Lisa Jane Persky added, “Growing up in the Village, everybody already dressed like the New York Dolls. And everybody was dressing like that in theater.”
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the early 1970s, many downtown artists were taken by video—including playwright Harry Koutoukas, who turned 87 Christopher Street’s fire escapes into a staging area captured by Global Village’s trusty Portapaks. For Suicide Notations, Koutoukas conscripted his neighbor Lisa Jane Persky in her New York debut as an actress. If Off-Off-Broadway opened its doors to nonprofessionals, Suicide Notations was more like Off-Off-Off-Broadway. Persky’s mother let Koutoukas use the fire escape on the front of her apartment for the actors to shout their lines, and other scenes took place on her neighbor James Hall’s fire escape directly above them. Persky played the Girl in Gown—wearing her own exotic long yellow dress with red moons and stars—and Hall was the Sleepwalking Poet. Koutoukas stole the show as Louis XIV, wearing a crown and a gaudy silk bathrobe, complemented with feathers, beads, and glitter. “I didn’t think about Suicide Notations as being in a play,” Persky said. “It was just an off-the-cuff kind of thing—like a Happening, really. We had a dress rehearsal, which was a performance for the street, because we knew we were going to shoot it on video.” It was taped by Rudi Stern, who cofounded Global Village and had previously produced light shows for LSD guru Timothy Leary. When Stern shot it at night, he lit up the fire escapes on all six floors and ran the master switchboard in Persky’s apartment. “My friend on the street,” Hall recalled, “he threw his crutches in front of a bus to stop the bus so we could shoot a scene.” Taylor Mead, Ronald Tavel, and Jackie Curtis were also cast for the video production (though Curtis ended up being a no-show).
From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Tom Eyen’s script for Women Behind Bars was wild and over-the-top, and under Ron Link’s direction the show burst with the energy of punk rock. “It had to move like the Ramones,” cast member Lisa Jane Persky said. “It just wasn’t anything without that pace.” After the original run, Women Behind Bars opened at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, with Divine as the Matron and Lisa playing the Innocent Raped by the System. “I would get brought in to see the Matron,” she said, “and I would be all trembling and everything. It was arch. Divine would pull a chain and this giant bed with satin quilt came down, which would go boom! It fell on the floor, and then things proceeded from there.” Mainstream and underground culture often overlapped downtown, as when 1970s pop superstar Elton John frequently came to the show. “He’d buy a whole row of seats and fill it with friends,” Persky recalled, “and you could hear him laughing loudly in the audience.” John asked Divine to join him onstage at Madison Square Garden and invited the whole Women Behind Bars cast to the arena. Kiki Dee—who duetted with him on the 1976 hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”—came out for a couple songs, then Divine did a number in front of the biggest audience of his career. Divine was certainly not a household name outside of the worlds of trash cinema and Off-Off-Broadway but, as Persky recalled, “It turned out that the Elton crowd loved Divine. They went crazy!”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Lisa Jane Persky made her stage debut at La MaMa, she performed her next role in Women Behind Bars at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, located across the street. The show was written by Tom Eyen, who had humble beginnings at Caffe Cino but later created the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Women Behind Bars was a trashy satire of women’s prison movies with a cast that included Divine, who had also worked with the Cockettes in San Francisco. Divine was cast in the second production of Women Behind Bars, directed by Ron Link, who directed Jackie Curtis’s first play Glamour, Glory, and Gold, along with several other underground theater productions. One day in 1974, Lisa Jane Persky ran into Sweet William Edgar, a warmhearted actor who had a very nasal voice and brilliant comedic timing. “They’re casting for this new show, Women Behind Bars,” he told her. “You should audition!” She didn’t get a part at first, but she was hired as the understudy for all the roles and became Link’s assistant, which meant she did everything—from running lights and ironing costumes to bringing a rooster back to her apartment on weekdays. (The rooster played a chicken named Rosalita, a gender-bending casting decision that was typical of Off-Off-Broadway.) The original production was performed at Astor Place Theatre. Starring Pat Ast, Helen Hanft, Mary Woronov, and Sharon Barr, it was funny and entertaining, but it was also a starker version. Even the set was stripped down, with just a couple of benches and fake prison bars. “Ron could make something out of very little,” Barr recalled, who played a Marilyn Monroe type named Cheri Netherland. “Sharon Barr was fabulous,” recalled Woronov. “She was gigantic and gorgeous, and she walked around like she was on Mars. It was very funny.”
Another connector figure in the downtown scene was Benton Quin, an Off-Off-Broadway performer who rented Harry and Stein a loft on the Bowery where the couple lived and the band rehearsed. “Benton is the person who gets credit for all that,” Lisa Jane Persky said of the way he helped spark many artistic relationships. “He masterminded a lot of the stuff, even though he was a bit cuckoo in many ways.” Quin was also a very literal matchmaker for Persky and Gary Valentine. After Quin appeared with her in Harry Koutoukas’s Grandmother Is in the Strawberry Patch, they remained close; and when Valentine moved into the loft, he realized the bassist was perfect for Persky and insisted that the two should meet. “Benton must have been persuasive, and so she came over,” Valentine said. “We later consummated our first meeting after a Vain Victory performance, the one Blondie appeared in. There was a party in the Upper West Side somewhere, and so a lot of people from the theater scene—Divine and all that—were there. That was a special night for Lisa and I.” He later wrote the early Blondie hit, “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear,” about their relationship.
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By late 1975, Gary Valentine was the first to cut his hair short; then Stein and Burke did the same and adopted a retro 1960s style. “There’s a picture of Debbie and me walking down Fourteenth Street,” Clem Burke said, “and everyone is looking at us, and I’m wearing what you would call a slim-fit suit. They weren’t looking at us because we were famous, because we weren’t yet. We just didn’t dress like everyone else then.” During the early years of the CBGB scene, no one had Mohawks or any of the other styles that are now punk clichés. The people on the scene mostly took their inspiration from Beatlemania-era fashion: black jeans and skinny ties. It was a pronounced contrast from the prevailing trends of the time, when earth tones, blue denim, and bell-bottoms prevailed. Designers weren’t in the habit of making black slim-fit jeans and suits—and even if they were, the members of Blondie didn’t have the money to buy new clothes. Instead, Burke purchased thrift store suits, wore them in a tub full of water, and then walked around in the summer so that the clothes would shrink around his body. “Everybody loved the skinny ties,” Lisa Jane Persky recalled. “There was a place in New Jersey where they had brand-new ‘old stock.’ It was all these old peg-leg pants from the early sixties, and they were brand new. We used to go there and get stuff all the time.” Burke once bought a bunch of unworn 1960s clothes from that store—such as Levi’s Sta-Prest jeans and button-down collar polka dot shirts—then lugged them to the Blondie loft. Some of those items ended up on the cover of the band’s debut album, because the guys in the band often shared clothes.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The buzz created by An American Family brought the Loud family to the attention of millions of people, including Lisa Jane Persky. The year it debuted, her father, Mort Persky, hired Pat Loud to write a piece about the show for Family Weekly, a newspaper insert that he edited. Lisa thought Lance Loud’s brother was cute, and a couple of months later, Mort introduced her to Grant Loud when he and the other Loud kids visited New York. She took them to see Holly Woodlawn perform at Reno Sweeney, an intimate cabaret located at 126 West Thirteenth Street in Greenwich Village. “Because of Warhol films like Trash and Off-Off-Broadway,” said Paul Serrato, who often accompanied Woodlawn as a pianist, “everybody wanted to see Holly perform at Reno Sweeney. It attracted everybody from the underground scene.”
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore