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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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STUDIO 45 (Not to be Confused with Studio 54)


But Douglas was able to offer me a loft to rent only a block away, at # 131 West 45th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. It was a large 2500 square feet space on the second floor of a building, which also housed my old friend Lanny, two floors above. The rent was $500 a month and after a little thought, I made up my mind to go for it. I signed a long lease on the loft. It seemed like a lot of money to come up with every month but actually rents are astronomical in Manhattan and Douglas gave me a really good deal. Within a month or two, Michael and Gene moved in with me and Studio 45 was born.

Basically the Studio consisted of two large, high-ceilinged rooms connected by a broad passage. The front room had huge windows that looked out and down onto 45th street and we accessed the loft by an elevator or a back staircase. The rear space had a small kitchen, a shower and toilet and two bunk beds were installed in one corner. A previous tenant had built a photographic darkroom in the center of the space, which we rented out at first, then turned it into a dark bedroom before finally throwing it out altogether. A black square on the ceiling, which Michael decorated with rhinestones like stars, marked the spot where the enlarger's tall chimney had rested. The loft was a pretty dingy space, which somehow never got the coat of paint that it needed. Walls went up and were torn down, as they were needed. It was a perfect raw space for the dozens of projects that it was to be used for over the five years that I rented it.


From the beginning, we were a low budget, semi-outlaw operation. We were too poor during the first year to sign a contract with the Electric Company and persuaded one of Douglas' employees to connect us directly to the streetlight electricity source through the basement. This meant that we could never run the hot water heater or the record player or a refrigerator at the same time. It wasn't until our second year that we managed to become legal, to get connected to mains electricity and to afford some of the mod. cons. that make modern civilization so civil. We had a back door which opened out onto a rusty, decaying metal world of fire escapes and dripping air conditioning units. In some ways, it felt as if we inhabited this alien environment in complete isolation. And it was certainly a long way from the world of Happy Valley. But to survive, we knew that we had to be able to adapt and the loft was a wonderful open playpen for big little children like us.


Below us was the Ace Typewriter store and to reach our doorway, we had to come past a metal grille on the street which was usually blocked by a couple of bored looking hookers. After a few weeks I don't believe that they even noticed our comings and goings although I did invite them to some of our parties. Business must have been more enticing than art because they never came up to check us out. If we weren't potential clients, we probably didn't exist for them. I'd heard the block described as one of the worst in Manhattan although it's since been cleaned up and is now much more uptown and smart than it was back in 1978.


Directly across the street from us was the Scott Hotel, surely one of the most sleazy and unappealing hotels in all Manhattan. It was filthy and rundown and the whores used to take their clients in there from the street to unimaginable fates within. Actually, that last part isn't quite true. The hotel windows were curtain-less and on a quiet night, a popular activity at the Studio was to look across and watch the action. Now I come to think of it, we didn't have any curtains on our windows either. Often we would go around the loft completely naked. Nudity was a legacy of the timeless life in Ibiza and in the winter, the radiators were swelteringly hot. I hope that we too managed to put on a good show. Eventually the action on the street below became just another part of the rich tapestry of life on 45th Street. Our big front window was like our television for it gave us access to a fascinating view of the city. We watched the Scott get raided frequently but never closed down. I remember following the adventures of a very young Latino couple with a room in the hotel on the third floor. She was quite pretty in a flashy sort of way and was a prostitute. They both looked very wasted and were probably junkies. They had two young children, a girl about four years old and a baby in a cradle. At night, the man would stay up in their room looking after the children while the woman went out into the street to look for clients. When she picked up a man and brought him back to the hotel, the husband would to vacate the room temporarily and would bring the two sleepy kids down to the street while his wife went upstairs. When she was finished, it never seemed to take more than fifteen minutes, she'd come back out again and the husband would take the kids back to bed. Sometimes this would go on all night. I saw it as a remarkable team survival effort and I felt so sorry for all of them. I imagine that they are all dead by now for their's was a hard and dangerous way of life.

Death was definitely an ever-present facet of life down there on 45th Street. I watched several old drunks and bums literally live and die down there on the street in front of Studio 45. They'd move onto the street in the heat of the summer and used to sit on the ledge that ran along the back wall of the Savoy Theater there. Their only activity seemed to be their daily shuffle up to the liquor store on the corner to buy a bottle every morning. Then they spent the rest of their day drinking and sleeping and watching the world as it passed them by. When the winter came with its bitterly cold New York nights, they just weren't equipped to survive. I watched one old guy who spent his life propped up on one of those support walking frames slowly fade away in front of my eyes as the cold weather closed in. Early one freezing morning in December, I looked out at the street and saw him stretched out along the ledge. I'm sure that I was the first person to realize that he was dead and for some reason, I really don't know why, I ran down into the street and photographed his body before they came and carted him away.


Our view of the backdoor of the Savoy Theater gave us an interesting and unusual view of Show Business. We could hear the muffled sounds of the show going on at the Theater and we also often got to see the performers when they came out after the show was over. I once saw the musician and notorious druggie David Crosby step outside the backdoor at one in the morning holding a big joint in his hand and smoke it on the street, stuffing his face with a hamburger at the same time. Way to go, Dave! I saw the reggae crooner Gregory Isaacs, with an entourage of twelve, heavy-looking black men dressed in dark suits all wearing matching red, yellow and green reggae tams, leave the backdoor of the theater after doing a sound check before his show on a Saturday afternoon. Isaacs was dressed impeccably in a white suit and wore a high peaked "dread" hat covered with red and black checks over his famous dreadlocks. His bodyguards looked like they'd seen a few too many gangster movies and went through an elaborate paramilitary protective routine, going out rapidly in groups covering one another as they exited. One night, we watched Willie Nelson and his band of cowboys drink beers as they relaxed after a show, leaning up against the side of their amazingly long white and gold tour bus which seemed to stretch half-way down our block.


There was an old delicatessen across the road next to the Scott Hotel which was run by a Turk with an obvious and ill-fitting toupee. We watched him while he scrambled to get by down there, turning his deli into a pizza parlour which don't go either and then into a "translation bureau", whatever that was. It all looked very sinister, the Xerox machine advertised in the window never operated, at least any time we asked to use it and small groups of swarthy men would meet in the shop's gloomy interior to talk together and to plot heaven knows what. Next, the shop became a donut and ice cream store, then a "French pants tailor" and an "adult book" stand before it returned to being a deli once more. He showed true American entrepreneurial spirit, that Turk with the terrible toupee and he deserved to find that winning formula eventually.


When we first went to live on 45th Street, on the corner of Sixth Avenue was what we called the Transvestite Macdonald’s. It was a favourite hangout for half the drag queens in Manhattan. They would congregate there at night because The Peppermint Lounge, which was situated half way down our block on the ground floor of the old deserted Knickerbocker Hotel, was going through a transitional phase as the G.G. Barnum Rooms. For a period, it was the numero uno transvestite disco in town. It certainly attracted some weird and wonderful and even weirder still people. At night, the street would be full of young men in drag, some of them strikingly beautiful. But vicious fights broke out almost every night and I saw men apparently getting savagely beaten only to reappear the following night, the blood washed away, the bright red lipstick re-applied, ready to do it all over again.


The noise from the street was often appalling and rarely stopped. I remember that a burglar alarm went off one Friday afternoon in one of the closed-up, condemned buildings a little further down the block. The noise it made was loud and extremely irritating and ran unabated until early on Monday morning when it finally ran down and died. Nobody seemed to notice or want to deal with it. One night I was awoken at three a.m. by the sound of breaking glass as bricks came crashing through our front window, throwing broken glass all over the floor. Two drunks stared incomprehensibly at me as I ran down into the street, half-naked, screaming at them to stop. The drag wars were fascinating but a little too dangerous for comfort. We all breathed a sigh of relief when G.G's went out of business and the Peppermint Lounge opened up again as one of the best rock music venues in the city. The drag queens found another street to fight each other on and soon we only had punk rockers and dreadlocked rastas to deal with at night.


Contemporary rock music was going through a major upheaval and a complete renaissance when I arrived in New York. A new generation of young kids had risen up to decry the self-indulgence and corporate business that characterized late 70's rock music. There was a complete change of attitude and a return to rock and roll basics. New bands burst onto the scene as quickly as they could learn three chords and the changes to "Louie Louie". For a music aficionado like myself, it was a wonderful time to be living across the road from the Peppermint Lounge and I took advantage of our unique location as much as possible. This was the club where Joey Dee and the Starliters and Chubby Checker had first introduced the Twist, the dance of my youth, back in the very late 50's and the place that the Beatles had headed for and hung out in when they had first hit big in America. The times they had a-changed since then though and I went to hear bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, clad in Goth black and festooned with swastikas calculated to stir up rage in the most liberal of hearts. The music wasn't that interesting but that wasn't the point. Attitude and outrage and change were what it was all about. Just like the young Elvis who had gyrated his hips and changed the course of pop music twenty-five years before, the punks were out to antagonize and threaten that older generation before they too had to grow old. So anything went on the music scene in New York in 1978. For instance I saw Nash the Slash at the Peppermint Lounge. He was a mystery musician from England, dressed in an immaculate gray pin-stripe suit and gray hat, with his head bandaged like the old Invisible Man. He wore dark glasses and performed alone, playing his electric violin along with a barrage of electronic pulses and wails which he evoked from banks of synthesizers on the stage behind him. The noise level was incredibly high and many left, holding their ears. Personally I found the music quite intense and Nash himself, a charismatic character. Most of the young audience loved the show and screamed for more, punching the smoky air with their fists and spitting at Nash to show their appreciation. The Peppermint Lounge too was one of the first clubs to feature continuous music video clips which could be seen on monitor screens all over the club and which provided an instant and vivid overview of this new generation's ideas and values. Not all the music I heard there was so unmusical, crass and deliberately provocative. I heard the great jazz-punk guitar playing of James "Blood" Ulmer late one night and discovered the most original and exciting guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. And all the major Reggae bands played the Peppermint Lounge but I'll get into that later in my story.


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