Saturday, May 30, 2009

T.V. Party Tonight!

So, the other day, my lovely Polish bride is reading “Splendor In The Grit,” an article in the June 2009 issue of Vanity Fair by James Wolcott about New York City in “the crumbling anarchy” of the 1970s “when artists’ lofts were inhabited by actual artists, every subway car held potential drama, and legends -- Lennon, Warhol, Garbo -- walked the streets.”

At one point in the article, Wolcott talks about “the advent of cable-access programming,” which, long before the Internet, allowed commoners (as well as plenty of uncommon fringe dwellers, like pornographer Al Goldstein and NYC stripper emeritus Robyn Bird) unprecedented access to mass communication and local notoriety. And one of the most successful and influential programs to emerge from the new DIY-TV scene was “Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party (with a guest list that included Blondie, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the Clash),” which ran from 1978 until 1982 in Manhattan and, eventually, L.A.

After reading that O’Brien’s show had been preserved and released on DVD, my better half Netflixed several episodes, as well as TV Party: The Documentary by filmmaker Danny Vinik, which traces the evolution (and eventual dissolution) of the coolest televised cocktail party of all time.

Taking his cues from Playboy After Dark and the Rat Pack days of the Carson-era Tonight Show, O’Brien (a handsome, martini-dry New Wave bon vivant) invited his artsy Village friends to come to the studio, hang out, smoke pot, and play with the equipment -- and since they were young, creative and weird, the results were funny, chaotic, and pretty much unlike anything else on TV, before or since.

For one thing, O’Brien’s friends included the likes of Fred Schneider, Fab 5 Freddy, Robert Fripp and an adorable pre-fame Debbie Harry (who, in one segment, bounces on a pogo stick to demonstrate the nuances of punk rock dancing). Meanwhile, familiar faces like David Byrne and Klaus Nomi pop up in the house band, while Basquiat is in the control booth, typing absurdist poetry on the Chryon.

David Letterman, back in the “anything goes” phase of his career, was a kindred spirit and professed fan of the show, and as the notoriety of TV Party and its regulars increased, it began attracting ever more famous scenester guests, from Bowie to Mapplethorpe, until the rising wave crested and, like all good things, the party came to an end: O’Brien got married, Harry’s bandmate Chris Stein caught a nasty case of pemphigus vulgaris (contributing to the breakup of Blondie), the yuppification of Manhattan drove the bohemians out and eventually everybody just moved on.

But Vinik’s documentary brings it all back, and those with fond memories of the early ‘80s may feel like they’re watching old home movies of their younger selves in a far funkier time, only with more famous faces and a freakier soundtrack. Rent it’ll dig it the most!

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