Carnegie Recital Hall

Carnegie Recital Hall

881 7th Ave, New York, NY 10019

This classy midtown venue sometimes hosted more experimental fare by the likes of Yoko Ono, Harry Koutoukas, and John Cage.


Yoko Ono’s Absurdist Sensibility


By the mid-1960s, Yoko Ono had collaborated with John Cage, Ornette Coleman, and other prominent composers and musicians, as well as important visual artists, dancers, and poets. She eventually moved on to more established venues such as Carnegie Recital Hall and London’s Indica Gallery, but it wasn’t always easy. “I feel that even in the avant-garde world, what I was doing was seen as a little bit out of line,” she said. “They had their own set of rules, you know? ‘You can’t do that! You can’t do certain things!’ ” For Ono’s Cut Piece in 1964, the audience was invited to cut off bits of her clothes until nothing remained. She sat onstage with her legs folded in a traditional Japanese pose of feminine submissiveness, embodying the kind of vulnerability women experienced in Asian and American societies. “That was a frightening experience,” she recalled, “and a bit embarrassing. It was something that I insisted on—in the Zen tradition of doing the thing that is most embarrassing for you to do, and seeing what you come up with, and how you deal with it.” Ono entered the underground film world in 1966 with Bottoms, a brazen but playfully cheeky work featuring several naked buttocks and no recognizable narrative. After she met John Lennon, they baffled audiences by crawling into a large sack and staying inside for long stretches of time. She called it “bagism.”  Yoko’s absurdist sensibility was also on display in her conceptual piece Questionnaire, 1966 Spring, which included lines such as “Happenings were first invented by Greek gods” and “The word ‘manila envelope’ comes from a deeply-rooted racial prejudice.” Her Do It Yourself Fluxfest Presents Yoko Ono and Dance Co. instructed its audience to “Face the wall and imagine throughout the year banging your head against it: A) Slowly until the wall collapses B) Violently until your head is gone.”

From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore

Koutoukas’s Amphetamine Angel


Harry Koutoukas channeled his love for Montez into 1966’s Turtles Don’t Dream, or Happy Birthday, Jesus, a play about a “Cobra Cult” that worshiped amphetamine. (The Cobra Cult was a thinly disguised stand-in for Caffe Cino, which had by then become a speed-fueled den of glittery iniquity.) Harry wasn’t a close friend of Andy Warhol, but they knew each other well enough for the artist to introduce him to patrons who funded its debut at Carnegie Recital Hall—a classy midtown performance venue that certainly wasn’t known for experimental freak shows. The show’s “plot” is hard to summarize. Characters uttered lines such as “Go and tell the sacred Cobra that our supply of the holy white amphetamine powder is running low. And hurry back. Being alone ain’t what it used to be!” The two rules of the Cobra Cult were: (1) you weren’t allowed to tell the truth and (2) you had to keep the holy amphetamine container filled. One of the show’s main characters was Tacky Tess, a follower of the Cobra Cult who worked on Fourteenth Street selling wind‑up cobra dolls until Jesus von Nazareth tipped her off that the police would arrest her for selling dolls without a license. After the Cobra Cult brought him into the fold, Jesus von Nazareth wreaked havoc on everything, so they crucified him. “We’re safe! Here comes the amphetamine angel,” an actor announced in the final scene as Charles Stanley walked down the aisle in high-heel boots throwing amphetamine powder, which was actually shredded newspapers. (Koutoukas had not yet finished writing the show by opening night, so he told Stanley, “Do an ending at 9:30.”)

From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore