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Sound Portrait: Glenn O’Brien

Dialog with Paul D. Miller/DJ Spooky

Glenn O’Brien has been an elemental force in Downtown NY for decades. From the time when he was Editor of Interview Magazine under Andy Warhol over to the seminal batch of zany after hours DIY TV shows “TV Party” that featured downtown mainstays like Debbie Harry, David Byrne, Jean Michel Basquiat and others, he combined the prototype for Saturday Nite Live with Reality TV in a way that still has people combing YouTube for gems from the show. O’Brien has shown over the years an enduring ability to understand the currents of “Downtown” in all its manifestations.

Origin Magazine caught up with him to talk about some of his current ideas.

10 Questions for Glenn O’Brien

What inspires you? You, David Byrne, Brian Eno, and bands like ESG and Liquid, Liquid, and if course, Basquiat’s band Grey come from a tine when the East Village scene was in its formative stages.

What do you think about the state of NY now?
I’m still inspired by music, but my real love is jazz, R & B and reggae. More than anybody I listen to Bill Evans, Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Pearl Bailey (Just discovered 5 Pound Box of Money, Sinatra, Burt Bachrach, Henry Mancini, the Wailers, Lee Perry, etc.. Plus songs you can dance to, particularly if they have a dance name attached like Hitch Hike, Mashed Potatoes, Pony Time, Cool Jerk, Wah Watusi.  Atomic Dog, OPP. Just discovered a great dead jazz singer Beverly Kenney.  Been deep into Gainsbourg.  Rachid Taha’s been creeping back into the CD player As far as the scene goes, I find the kids now much more interesting than 10 years ago or 20 years ago.  They seem more alive and game.  I hate nostalgia.  I’m more interested in making trouble now than revisiting old glories. For the last 20 years I kept thinking I ought to move to Paris or Palermo or someplace else, but I like New York now.  The only thing I prefer about Paris is that girls love older men there.

Would you move to Brooklyn? Do you think that Manhattan real estate has a relationship to what kids are doing these days?
I love Brooklyn and I would move there and I may move there if I found the right space.  My kid needs room to skateboard and my wife needs a really, really big closet.  I think it’s great that there are all these neighborhoods where creative people are doing innovative things.  I still live in Manhattan cause I have a free parking spot.

What are some of your favorite vintage clothing and record stores?
There are a few great vintage record stores in the East Village. I hesitate to mention them for selfish reasons, but 5th St. is cool. 

When I look at Glenn O’Brien, I think of someone who has had a nimble relationship with the currents of culture for the last 30+ years. What do you think about the way fashion is going these days? Do you think that things have become too standardized?
Thanks. I do still seem to be alive.  Fashion is too industrial.  It’s better as craft and cottage industry, and it seems that’s the way its going.  Mass produced cars are great. Mass produced clothes turn you into a car.

What are some of your favorite bands these days, and why?
I like the karaoke band that Andre Saraiva uses.  They’re cool, good and they like me to sing with ‘em. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra.  Gangstagrass. Pulp. LCD. Bjork, Heartless Bastards, Sizzla, Capleton, and The XX are the best Velvet Underground tribute band since Luna.

For me, the art world is one of the last bastions of what I like to think of as Apartheid era America. I travel a lot, and every time I come back to NY, I’m stunned at how ‘white bread’ (including the ‘black’ art scene plus the ‘Asian’ art scene etc). Any suggestions on how to fix this? Even the United States military is more integrated than the art world. Why?
Street art is very integrated.  Retail art is very market driven, very curated and critiqued.  I don’t think we should confuse ignorance with hatred, which is what apartheid is.  We’ve seen a huge boom in Asian art. China really broke out and there’s a huge India art scene that will happen internationally.  I think part of it can be blamed on the lack of a more functional community of artists.  That’s what always opened things up.  The dealers and the museums and critics aren’t going to do it. Put down the smart phone, go to a café, drink absinthe and dance naked. 

What drove you to do TV Party?

I learned that people actually watched cable TV.  I loved Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Carson, etc., and Hef’s forays into TV.  I wanted to explode the format and expand the medium. I’m preparing to try it again.

If Andy Warhol was around today, what kind of conversation would you have with him?

I guess the same kind we used to have. Info.  Gossip, art, where to go.  Andy was great on the phone, funny and provocative. 

As someone who has been involved in poetry, film, art, literature, and post everything downtown NY, what role do you think art and poetry have in cultural change?
Poetry turned into a sort of Freudian stand up comedy or tragi-comedy.  It got too self-promotional and introspective and lost the muse.  Poetry needs formality and craft.  The complete collapse of the NY poetry scene, which was amazing when I got here, is one of the great disappointments of my life.  There is really a ridiculously small amount of good writing going on and the people who get all the awards and academic attention are really not good.  Bad imitations of Vonnegut, who was goofy, and Donald Barthelme, who was brilliant. I almost finished The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Can’t even read the first page of a Dave Eggers book.  David Foster Wallace, can’t blame him for killing himself.