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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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A young deaf mute writer called Bruce organized one of the most memorable parties that we ever had at the Studio. Over three hundred similarly disabled men and women from all over the East Coast descended on the Studio one Saturday night. For those of us who mostly have to rely on speech for communication, it was an unforgettable experience. The Studio wasn't absolutely quiet, there was a barely audible murmur as words were enunciated without being spoken and there was a constant flutter of hands like tiny wings as groups of people spoke rapid sign language to one another. I walked around from group to group, excluded from any real contact but irresistibly drawn to the private, nearly silent energy being generated. Later, we laid the Studio’s big stereo speakers face down on the floor, cranked up the disco music to maximum volume and danced like maniacs to the vibrations of the pulsating wooden floor.

My old friend Patch Adams popped into my life again about this time. He came up to New York on a money raising trip for his projected model hospital project, the Gesundheit Institute, and to spend a week playing with some of the members of a Seattle-based commune called the Love Family who were also in town at the time. He brought them over to the Studio one afternoon. The leader of the group was a charismatic fellow called Love Israel and looked like he might be the lead singer for the, then very popular, "Eagles" rock band, with long hair, a beard, cool leather clothes and piercing blue eyes. His wife, Bliss, was dressed like an interstellar gypsy and their friend, Mercy, who was on sabbatical from the commune and was studying to be an actress in New York, was dressed in Afghani clothes and a feather boa. The fourth member of the party stood at least six foot six inches tall, had a long beard and fabulous pointy cowboy boots. He was called, aptly, Strength. He walked behind Love at all times and carried an old leather bag in his hand which Love would dip into from time to time whenever he needed money. The commune, I was told, was very affluent, numbered well over a hundred members and each person had to take on an appropriate name like Honesty, or Precocity or possibly even Gluttony, when they joined the group. The Love Family owned a lot of property in Seattle, had their own businesses and were said to be virtually self-sufficient. And they certainly liked to play. I spent a grueling week running around restaurants and clubs and museums with them and when Patch asked me if we could put on a farewell party for them at the Studio, of course I agreed. Love flew the commune's very own rock band into New York for the event and I invited everyone I knew to come. So for a night we had what turned out to be a fifteen-piece rock band at Studio 45. Musicians turned up from all over town, Fantuzzi was there, Rex from Aztec TwoStep came, my doctor friend Norman got to play his saxophone which was a treat and the Love Family showed us how to boogie woogie all night.

Luis Fantuzzi Jr.'s problem was that his band was often bigger than his audience when he performed. Unfortunately his show at Studio 45 the following weekend was no exception. I had first met him a few years before at the Hotel Diplomat when he had put on a show to raise money to try to get his sister out of gaol in Columbia. The event had been a financial failure because he had forgotten to put anyone on the door to take contributions on entry. I had left early with a strong image of him literally wriggling as he explained to the hotel staff that he hadn't made enough to pay for the room. But he had put a lot of energy into the Love Family party and I didn't really hesitate when he asked me if he could put on a benefit party for World Peace Day, one of his "Peace on Earth" projects. Probably I had a few private misgivings but ended up offering him the studio for I knew that his intentions were basically good. His eight-piece band didn't start until midnight and ended their second set at three a.m., playing to a rapidly dwindling audience. But Fantuzzi was great as always, dressed in a red, white and blue star spangled go-go suit with matching thigh boots and wearing white ostrich feathers, he performed a fire dance before picking up his guitar and launching into "Peace on Earth" for the third time that night. As he sang to a barely discernible audience at this point, he flashed his beautiful white teeth and the light flashed back off his million-dollar superstar smile. In the role of a New Age Sly Stone, Fantuzzi had no equal. And then he was suddenly gone with the night's takings, leaving me alone to clear up the wreckage of the party, to collect all the bottles and to clean out the loft. Back at the Diplomat Hotel, I had seen him as an irresponsible artist but now I saw that he had matured into an unscrupulous artiste. When I ran into him years later at a Rainbow Gathering, he didn't even remember me and when I heard last year that he was in Bali putting on shows, all I could do was laugh.


With my energies going more and more into show business in its myriad forms, I had to find another job. I had lost my job at Panchitos several months before. The owner, who liked to be the only heterosexual male in his restaurant and employed only beautiful young women as waitresses, realized that I wasn't gay and sacked me. I had thought that I had had enough of culinary sexual politics but when my friend John, who owned the Spring Street Bar in Soho, offered me another job I was happy to take it. John was going abroad for awhile and asked me if I'd like to come and work in the kitchen and keep an eye on things for him. I didn't know about being his eyes in the kitchen but I needed the money and thought it'd be an interesting place to work. I'm a reasonably good cook and a very fast and efficient prep. chef. But I'll never be a great cook for I'm just not that interested in food. I've been a devout vegetarian since I was nineteen when I really looked at flesh for the first time and as long as my food is simple and relatively healthy, I'm content. I was taken down to the subterranean kitchens on Spring Street and discovered that the cooks were Chinese to a man. It was my first contact with Chinese people outside of ordering food at a Chinese restaurant and I was extremely impressed by them. I found them very intelligent people, clever cooks, fantastic workers. But emotionally, I found them quite alien. They didn't seem to laugh in the right places or behave as I expected them to. They worked tirelessly for twelve hours at a stretch, spoke very little among themselves and could cook anything under the sun. I wondered if they liked me, the only barbarian in the kitchen. At least they appeared to tolerate me and I learnt an awful lot from them. I became a whiz at whipping up quiches, I gutted fish galore and learned to make heavenly soufflés. Lok, the head cook, invited me to his daughter's wedding feast in Chinatown and I even took him to hear reggae music at the Peppermint Lounge one night.


But at the same time, I never had an inkling of what was going on behind that even, pleasant exterior and I figured that in the final reckoning, we came from very different planets. To Lok, I would never be anything more than a non-Chinese. The best I could hope for was that when the Eagle defeated the Bear and the Dragon ate the Eagle, I might somehow be spared. When John came back to town and thanked me for "looking after the kitchen for him". I told him that it had been a real pleasure but that it wasn't clear to me who had been watching whom.


And then in late December, something happened that I had always secretly dreaded in New York. The Studio was robbed. I had two really good friends, Jacqui and James, who lived in Vermont and who would come to New York from time to time. Usually they stayed at Peter's loft and over the years we had become rather close. Jacqui had decided to come down for week with her daughter Jennifer and had asked if they could stay at the Studio. No problem. I was looking forward to seeing them and went out one afternoon to pick the two of them up from the Bus Station nearby. I was probably out for forty-five minutes altogether. When I got back with Jacqui and her four-year-old daughter, we stepped out of the elevator into the loft and put down their bags. For a moment things looked a little strange and it took me a few seconds to realize that I was missing things. In fact, almost everything I owned. The stereo was gone, so was my massive boombox, my beloved old Nikormat camera and its lenses. Drawers were half-open, clothes lay on the floor, my brand new hand-sewn leather jacket had vanished and so had the Studio clock. It was suddenly shocking. But considering I lost everything of value that I owned, I think that I took it surprisingly well. Everything could eventually be replaced and things like my slide collection and a few valued books and my large record collection were untouched. The thieves had obviously waited for me to go out and had apparently sent a small boy or a very small man through the narrow bars of the toilet window. Then they had probably left by the back stairs. All in all, it was a great New York experience. But a greater experience was still to come.

I had a really good week with Jacqui in New York and we became even closer friends. In fact, we became lovers. She and James had always seemed very easy and open with their relationship as probably only couples with a rock solid marriage can be and she and I just drifted into the intimacy of a short affair. Very short, for she went back up to Vermont at the end of the week. James was apparently comfortable with what had happened and all seemed well. As it would have been, except that Jacqui got pregnant and called to let me know that she thought that I was the father. She'd had a couple of abortions, couldn't face another and after a great deal of agonizing thought and long talks with James, they had decided to go ahead and have the baby. It must have been incredibly hard for both of them and especially for James who assumed complete responsibility for the baby. But the only way that Jacqui and James could deal with that situation was to cut me out of the picture totally and I've never seen any of the family since then. At the time, it really hurt me for I liked both of them very much. A boy was born who must be twelve by now. A friend of mine went to visit James and Jacqui a few years ago and brought me back some photos of the boy. He looks a lot like Jacqui. In the last few years, I've succeeded in repairing the friendship somewhat for time does heal most wounds I’ve talked to both James and Jacqui on the telephone several times and I look forward to going to see the whole family again whenever I can get up to that part of the world. It has been a strange little episode in my life but not one that has obsessed or preoccupied me too much. All it has done in the long run perhaps is to remind me that its never too late to have children and that it's an experience that I should like to have before I die. I would like to be surrounded by my young children in my old age and plan to be a housefather who would be very involved in my children's growing up. I feel sure that I would be an infinitely better father now than I could have been ten or twenty years ago when most of my contemporaries started their families. Had I followed their route and example, I probably couldn't have afforded to live as an artist as I have. I would have missed out on some incredible adventures and experiences. Fortunately having a family is still an adventure that I can look forward too.

Meanwhile with my career as the World's Greatest Batik Artist relegated somewhat to the back burner, an opportunity came my way that I just couldn't pass up. Toots and the Maytels, the veteran Jamaican reggae band was playing across the road at the Peppermint Lounge again and I went with some friends to hear them. As usual, we managed to make up a colourful group. Mercy was there, dressed like a belly dancer, all veils and mystery as well as a friend of Fantuzzi's called Raphael from California. He was a truly fearless man or maybe slightly brain-damaged now I come to think of it. He wore a pair of multi-coloured tie-dyed longjohns and highly polished combat boots. A crown of long red feathers completed his psychedelic commando ensemble. As if to compensate for their excesses, I wore a discrete light jacket and jeans and carried my omnipresent camera, a new Canon to replace the one that was stolen.

Needless to say we blended right into the crowd at the Club which was packed that night. Toots was superb as always. He was known as the "James Brown of Reggae" and was one of the most hardworking and soulful singers around. He had a wonderful band and a demon lead guitarist whom we invited across the road to the Studio after the show. He came with a group of friends, mostly young Jamaican dreads. I suddenly found myself shaking hands with my mysterious white Rasta lady from the Rockers Almighty Concert a month or so before. She was called Boo, was probably Jewish, very bright and definitely friendly. She came with a young dread called Emmanual, "Drummy" to his friends, who played drums in the band "Frequency" that we'd missed hearing that other night. We all made a tremendous connection and stayed up talking about music and art and life until dawn. Boo commented on the lack of a music system at the Studio which did look more than usually bare at the time. I told her about the robbery and joked about how I needed to get my own reggae band to fill the void. And she asked me how I would feel about letting "Frequency" practice at the Studio and even maybe managing the band for the time being. Boo was off to Jamaica for the winter and said that she thought that I was just what the band was looking for. I said that I wanted to hear the band first but privately I think that I'd already decided that I'd give it a go.

I went to hear the band play at the Kitchen one night and although the evening was inevitably marred by technical problems, a late start and a poor sound system, all standard problems I'd come to realize in the world of Reggae, I liked their sound. "Frequency" was lead by Eugene, a Jamaican about thirty years old who wrote most of the songs and was a really fantastic guitar player, inventive, technically very sophisticated and very exciting. He was able to play both rock and good jazz music. Whatever else Eugene was, I could never forget that he was an exceptional guitar player. Drummy was a great drummer, also sang and wrote songs and had more charisma than anyone else in the group. He was only eighteen, had the same birthday as I did and was the energy behind the group. Robert, the keyboard player, was the only white member of the group. He was an excellent musician and came from a well known classical music family. His father played violin in the New York Philharmonic, his mother was a flautist and he had a brother David, a violinist who had played and recorded with a lot of name rock bands in California. With his long hair, long sparse beard and beautiful eyes, Robert had a sort of Hassidic dreadlocked-look which I liked. The bass player was so-so but the music itself was very unusual, a mixture of roots reggae and punky new rock music with Eugene's memorable tunes, some good harmony singing and Drummy's drive holding it all together. Their image was a bit confusing for they all wore wildly different clothes and the phrase,"the Village People of Reggae" passed through my mind at one point I had to admit. I wasn't keen on the name "Frequency" either. They all came round to the Studio one day to meet me. We had a good talk and Eugene asked me what I felt about managing the band. Strangely, considering what the English did to the Africans they transported to the Caribbean to work on the Plantations there, I have found that Jamaicans are generally pretty well disposed towards the Brits. The band liked my accent and the look of me and picked up on my love of the music straight away. They thought that I was just what they needed to represent them and to get them work. Not to mention fame, fortune, recording contracts and beautiful women. For at bottom, this is what most members of groups in the rock music business are really after. So we decided to see how it went and on the first of January of 1982, the band moved all their equipment into the Studio and set it up there. Once more the Studio reverberated with that irresistible reggae beat! Poor Michael and Gene, they must have been cringing inside as they heard the noise and watched my happy rush towards the precipice. After a month of Studio 45's becoming a reggae center for half the Jamaican population of New York, Michael and Gene moved out and relations were after that, forever strained. It wasn't all fun and games with the band. I insisted, shortsightedly, that we change the band's name and we finally settled on "Catch a Fire", after a song by Bob Marley. In fact I realize that "Frequency", though lacking in image, did have more universal appeal if the band was ever to expand its audience. "Catch a Fire", although it sounded exciting, might have been more appropriate for a "cover" band while this band only wanted to play their own original music. Easy to see these things in retrospect.


Meanwhile the band started to record some of their songs in the Studio so that I'd have something to show to club owners when I went out looking for gigs for the band. We had a personnel change in the band almost straight away. The bass player dropped out, he wasn't much good anyway and Eugene's cousin Don joined up. And the band wanted to bring in Alex, a friend who wrote more rootsy songs to give the band a bit more bottom. I went along with all of this although I felt that bringing Alex in made the band a bit top heavy with too many singer-songwriters on board. The band's image was getting a little more diffuse all the time. But we were still all very excited and energized by joining forces and I pushed on regardless. Boo took off for Jamaica while Drummy, Robert and I quickly became blood brothers and spent all our time together. My batik career stopped dead in its tracks. I felt that I definitely needed a break and that a new thrilling career as reggae impresario was awaiting me. There weren't many places in New York where a reggae band could play so I took the obvious step of turning the Studio into a reggae club and opening the space up to the public every Saturday night. Never mind that it was illegal, that we took no safety precautions and that running a cash bar could have put me behind bars, we covered the town with fliers advertising the club and the band. Our slogan was "Catch a Fire"! A Song, A Dance and A Hand grenade !! Live at Studio 45! It actually worked out very well, various friends helped out with the door, the security and with the bar. A good old friend of Kristin's actually owned a liquor store in New Jersey and supplied us with drink. I tried to cover myself by selling drink tickets by the front door so that no cash actually changed hands at the bar. It wasn't legal but it stopped me from getting robbed and made me feel a bit better.

On the opening night of the club, we had a tremendous turn out, everybody who was anybody was there, including quite a lot of people who just wished they were. Dirty Harry and the cast from the movie "Rockers" tried to get in free but ended up staying and paying, as did the singer Jah Love and his band. The band was a bit nervous and shaky. Poor Alex, who'd never performed in public before, sang with his back to the audience all night and didn't even pretend to play his rhythm guitar. Drummy came over as the natural focus and star of "Catch a Fire" which was a bit hard on Eugene who worked hard but had zero charisma. The band looked truly bizarre and could have been the members of six different bands but I hoped that all that would change in the fullness of time. We made a bit of money that night and did regularly every Saturday night. I managed to feed us all and pay the rent for the first couple of months. But there were personality problems with the band continually. Band members didn't show up for rehearsals as promised. Eugene didn't like to do any physical or foot work like putting up fliers. Instead he seemed to be permanently ensconced on the Studio telephone where he had endless conversations with different girlfriends and ex-wives. He spent his life bouncing between different women telling them he loved them, lying to them all and trying to keep in all of their good books. It was only when he started to ask me to tell lies and to cover for him that I got angry. Alex was never much use although the others loved his songs. Robert and Drummy were fabulous with never ending energy and good spirits. Without their presence, the whole show would have fallen apart much sooner. As it was, we staggered on for almost six months of nighttime living, internal band squabbles and egomania. I realized that in the music business, the successful bands were those that manage to deal successfully with interpersonal relationships. They were not necessarily the most creative or talented musicians. The old adage about a chain being only as strong as its weakest link very much applied to a punky reggae band. But somehow I managed to steer the band through endless crises and started to get us gigs in the other Manhattan clubs. R.T. Firefly was a new, short-lived club and the band played very well there a number of times, pulling a good audience. The best gig was a regular Sunday night slot at Mikell's which was normally an excellent jazz club. I remember helping the great jazz drummer, Roy Haynes, break down his drum kit before we set up Drummy's there. I've got some good live tapes of those Sunday night gigs at Mikell's. The snag to that place was that it was a 100% black audience, with some pretty heavy guys in their clientele and the deal was that I had to collect the money at the door in order to get paid. This occasionally put me in some intensely confrontational situations though I think that I managed to deal with them all right. After all, if I hadn't, the band would have torn me apart. Robert's lovely and talented mother, Gwen met Trevor, a Jamaican radiologist, at one of our Mikell's gig. They went on to settle down happily together and get married eventually which was a very pleasant side result to the whole reggae band story. We eventually got some supporters who came to all our performances and helped out around the Studio and with our publicity. We even got to be well known around Manhattan which was no mean feat in such a short period of time. But we weren't making enough money to keep it all together and I was slowly sliding into debt. I began to get behind with my rent. Then I got us a whole week of gigs at a reggae club in Rochester in upstate New York, backing Don the bass player's cousin who was a singer with a local hit at the time. We all went up there in the poor old tired Torino that somehow I had managed to hang onto as my way of escaping the city and which I kept in a car park by the Hudson River. The house that the club had found us to stay in was so horribly dirty and run-down that we refused to stay there. After some tense and terse negotiations, we were put up at the Hotel Cadillac instead. It was a pretty bad place. I was shocked to see hookers operating out of the lobby as well as cocaine dealers openly offering drugs to all the guests in the hotel. To the tune of "Hotel California", the hit song from the Eagles, which has a reggae rhythm, the band sang a song called "Hotel Cadillac", which went down well at the club. " You can check in, but you can't check out..."

After a week in lovely downtown Rochester, we were all pretty frazzled when we headed back to New York. On our last night in Rochester, we had been taken to an incredible party given by the local Jamaican community. There was a whole roasted goat, reggae toasting, voodoo drums and crazy dancing. I swear that I was the only white man for miles. The club owners, automatically and inevitably perhaps, had given me a hard time at the end and we hadn't come away with as much money as we’d expected. They'd made the band pay for their drinks, I think, and my cut from it all came to nothing. Eugene, who'd behaved like a prima donna the whole time and had refused to come to soundchecks or lift anything heavier than his guitar pick, said that he wanted to quit. Alex still hadn't learned to play more than three chords on his guitar and I wanted him out of the band. Don the bass player kept quiet as usual. By this time I owed some $2000 in rent for Studio 45 and I felt that we'd reached rock bottom and the end of the reggae road. Unfortunately, the very worst was still to come.

I'd been involved in the planning of New York's very own "First Reggae Sunsplash" for several months now. It was to take place at Bond's International Club which was actually on our block of the city and was scheduled for the following month. "Catch a Fire" was to be the only Manhattan reggae band playing and lots of big name singers and bands were supposed to be performing. Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, Third World were said to be playing and even Bob Marley's Ghost was rumoured to be putting in an appearance. The whole Festival was dedicated to Marley's memory. I wanted the band to hang on for one more glorious Big Gig, the one that could make or finally break the group. Drummy, ever the optimist, managed to convince the others to agree to do it.

I was meanwhile having hard times and spending a lot of time out in New Jersey being fed and nurtured by Robert's mother, trying without success to raise money for the rent and facing my imminent eviction from the Studio. I was pretty depressed and disillusioned with the Reggae Business. But I was unable to shake it off and turn back to my art work which would have probably have made me feel a lot better and might even have paid the rent.

The month leading up to Reggae Sunsplash was a very bleak time for me. I saw Drummy and Robert regularly for they were both going through what I was going through. I’m sure that they both felt a little guilty about the way things had turned out for me. Mostly I stayed at the Studio and laid low there, going out occasionally to see the friends who still wanted to see me. I felt that my personal esteem and credibility were probably at an all-time low. I had no money whatsoever for weeks but took huge numbers of novels out of the Public Library and succeeded in numbing myself with words. I felt completely unable to deal with the realities of my situation and to find the money I needed to save the Studio. The day before the gig at Reggae Sunsplash, the band met at the Studio for a rehearsal but the feelings weren't good and nobody said what was on his mind.

It would have been nice to come up with a happy ending to this episode in my life. I'd love to be able to recount how a talent scout from Island Records was at the gig, heard the band and signed them up to a million dollar contract. Or that the band's manager ran off to the Caribbean with the money at the end or even that my fairy godmother died unexpectedly and left me $10,000. But this was the Real World and as I said, the worst was yet to come. It shouldn't be forgotten for a moment that this was the Reggae business where most stories end with an account of yet another Reggae, Roots and Rip Off. Bond's was packed that night and it's a large space. "Catch a Fire" was booked to play fairly early on in the evening for they weren't one of the big names promised. So the band was ready and psyched-up to perform by ten p.m. Somehow the word got out to the impatient audience that Peter Tosh wasn't going to play and nor were Bunny Wailer, Steel Pulse or Third World. Several "middle range" stars were there, General Smiley and Dennis Brown, but nobody really good and definitely not Marley's Ghost nor the show that had been advertised. The audience was furious and started to make a lot of noise and demand their money back. In desperation, the promoters started to send on performers from higher up the bill to placate them and "Catch a Fire" kept being bumped further and further down the list. General Smiley went on at one a.m. and Dennis Brown at two thirty a.m. Still poor "Catch a Fire" had to wait and by the time they were finally announced, it was almost five in the morning and they came on to an audience of only about fifty diehard fans. Everyone including the band was exhausted and the band played badly. I felt so sorry for them.

That was the end of "Catch a Fire". There really didn't seem to be any point in flogging that dead horse any more. Boo came back from Jamaica just in time for the Last Sad Hurrah at Bond's and felt as bad about it all as I did. She had fallen off a horse while riding on the beach and had completely shattered her ankle. She had problems of her own. Having managed to bury the band at Bond's, I was looking for a hole to bury myself in. I had had two eviction orders already and had to be out of the Studio in a week or face prosecution. Douglas had been very fair with me but just couldn't let me stay there any longer owing him so much money. I was counting down the days with no salvation in sight and was even thinking of leaving the States. Of course I had lived there for almost five years without a visa. I was an illegal alien and had I tried to leave at that point, I would probably have never been allowed back in again.


And then suddenly, I was saved. Kay called me up from Florida to say that she was about to go into hospital to have a hysterectomy. Would I come down as soon as possible to stay with her and Carlos in their new home in Coconut Grove and help her recuperate? I agreed to come at once. My friend Stacey the clothes maker offered me a week's well paid work, painting her new loft so that I could even come out of New York with a few bucks in my pocket. And best of all, Michael came round to the Studio one morning. There had been some bad feelings when I had driven him and Gene out with the reggae music and the reggae business, but he offered to pay off all the money that I owed Douglas in return for my passing the lease to the Studio onto him. It was an honourable way out and I didn't hesitate for a moment before agreeing.

And so suddenly, I was on my way. I put everything I owned into the basement of Gwen's house in Leonia, loaded up the Torino and drove out of New York late one night in May 1982. I was literally making my escape, for it felt like the city had got me by the throat and had almost destroyed me. I didn't go back to New York for another four years but now I go there every chance I get and love the city again. The lessons for me were not to try and live there for only the strongest or the most ambitious do well there. And to stay out of the music business for the same reasons although I didn't quite learn that particular lesson until a bit further down the road. But I'm getting ahead of my tale again and even further away from my art.



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