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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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Life on the Corner of Broadway and Babylon

Suddenly I was as finished as I was going to be and it was once more time to drive North up Route One. The Torino car was holding up really well considering the amount of attention and money that I was able to lavish on it. It was a bit strange coming back to the Studio for Michael and Gene had had it to themselves for a year now. The pecking order had changed, which meant that I had lost my little bunk bed and was relegated to the mattress in the passage. So I moved in with my friend Cathy and shared her chaotic little space on Seventh Avenue at Twenty First Street. It was a bit cramped but it was cosy. We lead a sort of "Cox and Box" existence there, she did her sleeping during the day and went out to work at Panchitos Mexican Restaurant at night while I spent the days up at the Studio and generally, at least, got to sleep before she came in. We lived right around the corner from the Chelsea Hotel and I immediately joined the YMCA across the road from it so that I could go on with my running. There was a track around the top floor of the building and I started to run regular laps there. That was very challenging for there were some incredible young athletes running up there every morning and I had to really push myself to keep up with them at all for any length of time. But I used to try.

Since I'd been off traveling, the SouthWest Gallery had become the Cooper-Lynn Gallery and had a new manager whom I didn't get on with particularly well. My new show opened there in December 1980 and although I did sell some pieces, I didn't sell as well as I had the year before. The work came out of my trips to California and Florida and I realized that New Yorkers like to surround themselves with beautiful New York images to counter their rising suspicion that they might in fact be living in a hell hole together with another nine million loonies. Lovely impressions of landscapes in other States, however molten gold the light may be, just don't make it in New York. I got a couple of cityscape commissions out of the show and got back to work at the studio straight away. Cathy came up with a part time job for me at Panchitos and I started to work in the kitchen there a few days a week. I was a prep. chef there, making gallons of guacamole every day (but never eating it myself) and preparing salads and sauces. It was relatively easy work, it fed me well and I had a small regular income for the first time in a long long time which was nice and gave me a needed, albeit false, sense of security.

As a long time lover of good music and a Brit to boot, I was always a fan of John Lennon. Of the Beatles, he was always the one that interested me the most. Paul was seemingly opportunistic and too soft to be a real rocker, George was too New Agey and spiritual and Ringo was just a dumb drummer. But I could easily identify with John's caustic wit and edgy music. I remember the night that he was shot vividly. Cathy and I were walking home together on Seventh Avenue at about two in the morning when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I sensed, rather than saw, a figure throwing himself at our backs. It felt like that attack in New York that one always subconsciously feared. I spun round defensively and fell into the arms of my old friend Bobby Mustache, fresh out of gaol in Afghanistan or Morocco or somewhere. It was good to see him and we all went into the bar, I think it was called the Angry Pheasant or the Ancient Peasant, that he had just come out of. As we came through the doorway past the television behind the bar, they were interrupting the program to tell us that a crazed fan had just shot Lennon outside his apartment at the Dakota Hotel up the road by Central Park. Lennon had signed an autograph for the assassin earlier that day and the guy had come back to the Dakota and shot him out on the street that night. It sounded like a case of the fan hoping to take on Lennon's power by killing him like some animistic hunter. It was very shocking. A few days later, we all went to the Memorial Service for him in Central Park on the spot that would later be called Strawberry Fields. It was a freezing, damp day, thousands were there to stand in silence for ten minutes in tribute to one of the icons of the twentieth century and one of the leaders of the so-called Youth Revolution of the sixties. All I could hear as we stood there shivering trying to focus on Lennon and his music were the voices of the vendors as they worked their way up and down the lines of mourners crying out " T-shirts! Get your memorial T-shirts now while stocks last, $12 only, get your buttons now, two for $5.....". John Lennon's body lies a-moldering in his grave but I think I can still hear his sarcastic laugh.

Back at the Studio it was business as usual. Almost. I found my attention wandering more than it should have and I was spending a lot of time looking out of the window. The operation that I ended up calling "The Great Chipwitch Conspiracy" held my attention longer than most things I saw down there on Forty Fifth Street. Every morning at around 10.30a.m., a large yellow Hertz rental truck would pull up and park just below my window. The Chipwitch operation had started for another day. I ought to explain that Chipwitches were New York's latest addiction. They were large vanilla or chocolate ice creams sandwiched between two even larger chocolate chip cookies and they looked like the ultimate sugar madness snack. The vendors would march out of the truck, one by one, each wheeling his or her Chipwitch cart out onto the street. Soon they would be all lined up along the curb in a perfect row stretching down the street. There would be fifteen or twenty of them usually, all wearing identical Chipwitch sunhats and T-shirts bearing the slogan "They're Outrageous". Every morning there would be a military style minute inspection of the carts by the older looking Chipwitch commander. This was followed by a pep talk of some kind and then finally what seemed to be a serious discussion about the day's selling tactics. Then the operatives would put up their cute umbrellas which looked like big Chipwitch cookies over their carts and each vendor would head off uptown with his or her secret mission for the day.

One day I passed one vendor on Broadway and clearly heard him muttering over and over to himself "Chipwitch, Chipwitch, Chipwitch". Was that like "Hari krishna, hari krishna, Hari krishna or nam mioho renge kio"? I was beginning to think that the Chipwitch operation was a cover for something more insidious than plain, old-fashioned, sugar madness. At twelve o'clock every weekday, the whole of Sixth Avenue became filled with office workers taking their lunchtime breaks. Like gods descending from Mount Olympus, the workers came down from their skyscraper glass palaces to grab some sunshine, some of them to openly get high (things were different in the early eighties) and to eat the food that was being sold from carts and booths all along the street. The fastest selling item in the Sixth Avenue Sukh was the Chipwitch Ice cream which literally sold like hot cakes, an inappropriate but true phrase. It seemed to me that at least two out of three people were eating ice creams while the third was waiting impatiently, even desperately in line to get his little sugar rush. Or was it more that a mere sugar craving? I'd got a sweet tooth but I wasn't queuing out there for a Chipwitch. Who was behind Chipwitch? The very military-like operation of the vendors made me look further, to the possibility that some large, formless organization was ultimately behind the whole set-up. Could it be the Moonies, laundering their money in some new innocuous way or had L. Ron Hubbard's drive to "Clear the Planet" in ten years taken some new, more sinister and dangerous route? These were the final days of the Piscean Age, the era of permissiveness, cheap thrills, better drugs, ultimate body and mind stimulation and so on. What part did Chipwitch play in all of this? Could the workers of Sixth Avenue be hooked on some new highly addictive drug? Could the Mafia have developed the perfect product, a socially acceptable stimulant that had even recently been given a rave write-up in the Village Voice, the gist of which had been used in the Chipwitch advertising campaign? Good God, was Rupert Murdoch in on it too? Was Chipwitch the new opium of the Masses? Are the fat cats who actually own those crystal towers looking down from on high and chuckling to see their workers hooked on a new productivity drug, mindlessly going back to their mindless jobs? Or even more appalling to consider, could the C.I.A be behind it all? Had the unscrupulous and immoral Republican Party come up with a radically new way to dump nuclear waste? In the early Eighties, nothing was too awful to consider, nothing to improbable to be possible. In twenty five years, if we were all still around, I was sure that we would look back on the second half of the Twentieth century with another perspective and would see the depths of human irresponsibility and unscrupulousness that crazed, out-of-control, Capitalism and self interest had reached. Perhaps there would come a day when a list would be drawn up of those to be judged and brought to justice. When that day dawned, I expected to see the names of the masterminds behind the "Great Chipwitch Conspiracy" near the top of that list.


Although I was at the Studio every day, plugging away at some new cityscape, waxing away my regulation ten-hour day, my heart wasn't quite into it during this period as you may see. I was lonely and loneliness in the big city can be the loneliest state of all. I dated Kristin's old roommate Anita, a beautiful Afro-American woman who had recently reverted to her given name of LaVerne and she took me into some interesting new worlds. We hung out on the lower East Side, an area that I'd cautiously avoided until then and she took me to some artists' parties and some very cool jazz clubs. And Pamela from Florida showed up for one more passionate weekend before vanishing again and going off to Oregon to check out Bhagwan's new Rancho Rajneesh near Portland.

My old friend Dr Patch Adams invited me to come down to visit him in Herndon, Virginia just outside of Washington D.C. and I flew down there in the Spring to spend a few weeks with him and his family. I remember that he picked me up at Dulles Airport and whisked me straight into Washington for it was the day of the Cherry Blossom Parade. Somehow Patch had managed to get permission to actually take part in the Parade itself. He and his family wore fabulous gorilla suits that Lynda, the consummate seamstress, had put together and Patch, showing a certain subtle sense of humour, had brought along a medieval Pope's costume for me. We were marching with a curious group called "The Justice League of America", a motley crew of freaks wearing various superheroes outfits. All of Washington was there to see us. So there I was, fresh from the Concrete Jungle, wearing my Pope outfit, swinging along behind Superman and Green Lantern, walking next to three idiot gorillas who insisted on hugging as many open-mouthed spectators as possible. Not being a natural clown myself, I think I managed to rise to the occasion with my cod Latin ramblings and vague sacrilegious gestures and blessings.


It was great to get out of New York after a long winter there. Patch's house in Herndon was on a little chunk of land in clear sight of the motorway but gave the impression at the same time of being a real farm. The Adams' were dedicated goat herders at that time and that was something I could identify with. I took pottery classes from a local craftsman in return for giving batik classes to his wife. I even put on my Pope costume one more time when Patch got a desperate emergency call from a medical friend of his who was going through a crisis with his wife. He begged Patch to come on over to his house and to mediate between the two of them in a quarrel that they were having. And Patch, never one to miss an opportunity to dress up and go out clowning, insisted that I and another friend Marcus get dressed up and accompany him on his mission of mercy. Actually both Marcus and I demurred initially, it hardly seemed appropriate and anyway we didn't know the couple at all. But Patch insisted again and so we all dressed up, Marcus and Patch as clowns, me as Jonathan Paul and went over to the couple's house in Arlington. The husband took one look at us, remembered an appointment and split. Patch charged on and offered to give the wife a six-handed body massage. She clearly thought that we were slightly mad but finally gave in and the three of us slowly, carefully, began to massage her. By this time Marcus and I had gotten into the whole thing, had introduced ourselves and had shown the confused woman that we were entirely harmless and not even particularly crazy. I ended up telling the woman all about my painful affair with Kristin and how I'd separated from Marie Luz. Probably it was as cathartic for me as it was for her. The massage lasted for many hours, we all talked a great deal and I couldn't help but notice that the woman got pretty excited by the whole experience. There's nothing like a bit of soul sharing and six-handed contact to get the blood going and the senses swooning. We finally left her at two in the morning just as her husband showed up again to see what had happened. The next morning, he called us up in Herndon to thank us profusely. He and his wife had had the night of their lives and he wanted to ask us what we'd done to his wife. Patch's approach didn't always seem the most subtle but sometimes it worked wonders. Of course, it later transpired, the couple separated the following year but that isn't part of my story.

Meanwhile, back in New York, I was invited to join a new cooperative gallery called "Art", owned and organized by a friend of Michael's called Johnny Dodd. Johnny was a charismatic little guy, twitching with energy, continually moving and waving his hands around and spitting words out like bullets. He reminded me of the legendary Neil Cassidy in Kerouac's "On the Road" novel. Eventually, over the course of a year, I took part in three large, rather lavishly appointed shows in his big loft on East 18th Street where I could show my latest batik paintings, before the gallery collapsed through lack of funding. It enabled me to explore another artistic avenue too. I had been taking photographs of graffiti and the collages that layers of posters made all over the walls of the city since I'd been there. I made colour Xeroxes of some of them, mounted them and showed them at "Art" Gallery. It's a collection of photos that Iíve gone on to show all over the States under the name of "The Writing on the Wall".


It must have been about this time that Michael got back into acting and we would take the train to Philadelphia to see his theater openings which were always held there, to test out audience response I suppose. Usually a group of us would go down there for the evening and I remember a time that our Scottish friend from Ibiza, Irene, came with us. She was now quite a well-known fashion designer and clothes manufacturer living in Tribeca in Manhattan. Michael was excellent as always and we all got back late that night after a great talk on the train. Two days later, Lanny came down, ashen-faced, to say that he'd just heard that Irene had been stabbed to death the previous night. It was a senseless story. Irene and another girlfriend had gone out to a nearby bar in the evening and had been accosted by two young black kids in the street asking for money. The two women had brushed them off without really thinking and had gone on another block. The two kids, I think one was sixteen and the other eighteen, had meanwhile run on ahead of them and as they came around a corner just below Canal Street, had stepped out in front of them. Without any warning, the younger boy had stabbed Irene in the chest with a knife. She had died almost immediately. It was another awful New York tale with a horrible ending. Both youths got off with very light sentences because of their ages. We all cried a lot and started to stay off dark streets at night. I personally have never had trouble on the streets of Manhattan but I don't know whether that was due to a survivor's natural caution or sheer blind luck.


Whenever Peter One was in town, he and his family would stay in their loft down on Canal Street. We would hang out together and go and hear music in the clubs, almost every night when I could afford it. Peter and I were completely hooked on reggae music, that hypnotic hybrid music from Jamaica and London, which had developed out of the old bluebeat and ska music that I knew so well in England back in the Sixties. Probably when we look back on this period twenty years from now, Reggae music will seem to be a very curious phenomenon. It is music played primarily by an obscure religious sect called Rastafarians who initially came from Jamaica. They believed in the Old Testament Bible, that Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, was the new Messiah and quote Marcus Garvey as the Saviour of the human race. Rastas stop cutting their hair, wash but don't comb it and it eventually mats together to form so-called dreadlocks which have become a very fashionable look during this decade with both whites and blacks. Reggae is black revolutionary music with a mostly religious and political message. Its strange, lopsided disco beat has evolved from island rhythms via James Brown to its current heavy rock guitar based form. It is music to dance to, though most people can't dance to it. Reggae is music with a message, but who listens to words these days even if they could understand the heavy accent and pidgin English patois? There are lots of reggae music stars but easily the biggest, best and most influential was Bob Marley who died of cancer in 1981. Most strange of all, young white people made up most of Reggae's audience in the eighties though that isn't true any more. Its popularity has spread throughout the Third World. When I was in Katmandu in 1989, Bob Marley songs were played more than any other kind of music. But ten years ago I saw a mostly young white audience at reggae concerts. There was a popular reggae song with a chorus that went "Africa is burning and the black man is dancing the Freak, Africa is burning and the black man is dancing the Boogaloo". That was very true at the time. Disco reigned supreme then and it seemed like the Afro-Americans had been seduced by their innate sense of rhythm and by the jive white man's insistence that they "get down" (not "up" as another big reggae star Peter Tosh, now also dead, pointed out). And I was one of those young (ish) white Reggae fiends, going out to every show in town, making sure that I caught every big name passing through and, illegally of course, taping as many of the performers as I could on a good quality Walkman. I know that I must have driven Michael and Gene crazy with my reggae music in the Studio.

And the worst was still to come. I don't know whether this is the time or place to get into Reggae music in any depth but I went to see Bob Marley play several times. He was a small, totally charismatic figure who wrote innumerable powerful anthemic songs with both mystical and political messages backed by great and memorable melodies. In fact, when he came to New York to do a week of concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Peter and I went to hear him and to tape the concert. We also succeeded in talking our way into a press conference he gave at the Hilton Hotel. Using fake Press cards and posing as journalists from High Times magazine, we managed to take some great photos of Marley and even got close enough to ask him some questions. He was even smaller in size close up but had an incredible presence and I have the photos to prove it.


We went to hear Burning Spear several times too. His persona was that of an ancient African prophet, a noble savage just down from the hills. Winston Rodney was a massively dreadlocked rasta guerrilla freedom fighter who actually played gigs down in Babylon rather often. He put on a fantastic performance, chanting repetitive slogans and phrases against an hypnotic backbeat. He didn't have much in the way of real songs but he had a really great vibe, mon! There were others, lots of great bands and singers, Steel Pulse from England with a sound to match their name, Toots and the Maytals who were the most soulful group I had ever heard and Black Uhuru who had power and rhythm and a great look but had only one song to sing. I couldn't get enough of that Reggae music! Which leads me, eventually, onto my next story.



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