by James Killough
I got back from a hike through Hollywoodland Friday afternoon, during which I did not see Moby but I did throw envy at his castle, and found a note on Facebook from my buddy Joey Rubin inviting any of his friends in LA to a get-together for Turner Movie Classics at a Eva Longoria’s restaurant Beso two blocks away from me.
You would think that the decision to go would have been difficult, seeing as I’d just sworn off alcohol for all eternity: I had a stonkin’ hangover from too much red wine with Dame Bea at Yamashiro the night before. That hike through the hills had been like willfully rattling my head in a barrel for an hour and a half. But there I was bounding down the street to have a drink with Joey faster than you can shake a martini pitcher.
Joey is the proof to my refutation of a classic cliché, which was voiced by Dame Bea and her friend Deborah when we were walking up to Yamashiro the night before. We passed a house with a very handsome man leaning out of the window, with whom we bantered briefly without breaking stride.
“He must bat for your team,” Dame Bea said in Italian when we weren’t even out of earshot. The reason we weren’t out of earshot is that’s one of the great things about speaking a useless language like Italian: very few other people understand it. Come to think of it, it’s the only great thing about speaking Italian.
“Actually, I don’t think he does bat for my team,” I replied. Then both Dame Bea and Deborah voiced the Great Cliché: But all of the hot men are gay!
No. We are ten percent of the population, which means we are only ten percent of the hot men. I believe it’s actually more like nine point six percent, anyway. And after you’ve deducted that close-to-ten-percent, we have very few men in our ranks as sexy as Joey Rubin. If Joey were gay, I would convert to Judaism for him; that is, if either his religion or the state would allow me to propose without shooing me away as a prematurely senile fagelah.
Even though it’s right down the street from where I’ve been staying, I’d never been to Beso. The food was tasty — the chicken tacos were better than average, and that’s a lot coming from a taco monster — and the drinks tastier. I was concerned that a tequila cocktail I ordered might have been too gay because it was jammed with fruit. I thought maybe I should defend my precarious manhood by having the bourbon concoction the other guys had ordered, Joey included. Actually, Joey ordered the bourbon concoction first and the other guys followed suit like dutiful courtiers. I like Joey, I have a crush on Joey, but not enough to pile a bourbon hangover on top of a red wine one. My cocktail turned out to be bi-curious: not sweet, and just fruity enough to be seductive.
I first met Joey at Norwood Club in New York, where we are both members. Joey is, in fact, the youngest member, or he was when I first met him out on the stoop at some wee hour, alcohol fumes leaking from my eyeballs and mingling glamorously with the smoke from my cigarette. We bantered for the length of a cigarette or two, then saw each other in exactly the same circumstance a few times after that. We had that re-intro conversation a few times:
“What’s your name again?”
“Joey Rubin. What’s yours again?”
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I have to hand it to Joey. If you are twenty-three and I find you attractive and I’m particularly drunk, it can be like fending off a six-foot-three Komodo dragon: your sexuality is irrelevant to me, I just want to devour you or at the very least poison you with my saliva so that no one else can have you.
At Beso the other night I was trying to explain to someone what Joey does exactly. “He’s a connector,” a DJ friend of his said. That gave me an image of another Rubin, Jerry, who invented networking. I remember being dragged by my mother to an event of Jerry Rubin’s just after they first started in 1981. It took place in an apartment of one of those faceless white brick modern buildings on the Upper East Side. I am too much of a misanthrope to enjoy anything like networking or connector-ing, and back then I was far more poisonous and lethal than I am now.
Joey bounded into Norwood one afternoon way before cocktail hour, which meant I was my more professional self. He introduced me to his friend and colleague Jeff Rosenthal. They’re like the Charisma Twins, those two.
Joey and Jeff were snorting shots of espresso. As strange and geeky as that sounds, they were doing it, and it wasn’t annoying. Between dipping their straws into their espresso coffees and snorting, Jeff and Joey explained that they were “street Jews.” I gather that a big part of what makes them ‘street’ is the lingo. Joey uses a lot of words that as the Scottish owner of Norwood, Alan Linn, once remarked, “sound like they should be bad, but the way he says them they really aren’t. Know what I mean?”
After Beso, Joey took me and some friends across the street to a new boutique-slash-event place called Freak City on Hollywood Boulevard. It was interesting to see this sort of makeshift clothing shop, which becomes a nightclub after closing, smack in the middle of Hollywood in an abandoned mini-department store; this is the sort of thing that might have sprung up on Second Avenue in the early 80s, Kenny Scharf graffiti on the walls, Stephen Sprouse clothes on the rack, Teri Toye in the bathrooms with Steve Meisel, you know, playing pat-a-cake and stuff…
Indeed, the theme at Freak City these days surrounds the recent documentary Basquiat ’81, which I haven’t seen, and probably won’t unless it’s playing on some Virgin flight and I’ve already seen the Hollywood blockbusters I have put off until now, and we’re still two hours out from Heathrow and I have nothing else to watch. When it comes to the 80s, I agree with my good friend and sometime mentor, Scott Covert: “What was so fucking great about the 80s? Everybody died.”
Maybe I don’t think of it as drastically as Scott Covert does — he watched a great many friends die, more than anyone I know — but I’ve had a more exciting time since then, and I was living a pretty rocketing life in the 80s.
“Maripol was in the other day,” Justin the owner of Freak City said in a way like he really meant Marilyn Monroe. Maripol. I haven’t thought about her since… the 80s! She was good friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and made jewelry, or something to do with fashion. I know my best friend and colleague at Taxi Magazine, Saskia, used her work in shoots. It’s all foggy because it was very foggy back then.
I knew Basquiat well enough, but I wasn’t as close to him as many of my friends were. He was already a superstar by the time we got within striking distance of each other. I found myself mainly partying around the fringes of his largesse. And what an enormous largesse it was; the guy really knew how to throw a party. Every night, it seemed.
I went to two or three massive parties in the loft that Warhol loaned Basquiat on Great Jones Street, a converted fire station. Those were a lot of fun, they were all of that crazy 80s excess you’ve heard way too much about, so I won’t crap on about it. I mainly sat in Basquiat’s best friend Shenge’s room and got high on pot. Or snickered about Julian Schnabel (a soft target, literally; the art world’s very own Donald Trump) upstairs with Saskia on the sofa, getting even higher.
I saw Basquiat most often at Mr. Chow’s, where he held dinner parties in the private dining room downstairs several times a week. Scott Covert was very close to Tina Chow, and I lived for a while above the restaurant on East 57th Street, so almost every other evening was spent drinking kir royales with Tina at the upstairs bar, and then going down for a few minutes to say hello to Jean-Michel. That was about it, really. And then he died.
Scott Covert was my mentor in the sense he tried to teach me about modern art firsthand. We occasionally made stuff together: I assisted him on projects, none of them noteworthy, installations for nightclubs, mainly. Installations were a rage sparked by a club in Tribeca called Area, which changed its theme and decor completely every month. Other clubs around town tried to followed suit, but none were like Area; it’s the only nightclub I’ve ever truly loved. Scott and I worked as sort of artists in residence for a while at a club uptown near Mr. Chow’s, so more often than not we were with Tina at the upstairs bar drinking free expensive cocktails.
Despite my modern fine art education under Scott’s tutelage, I never liked Basquiat’s work. Loved his Champagne and caviar, but not the work that bought it. I can’t quite pinpoint why. Just not my thing.
Tina Chow died of AIDS, and that was much sadder for me than Basquiat’s passing. She was a very sweet woman, so gracious and glamorous. After her diagnosis and her divorce from Michael Chow, Tina moved to LA, where my friend Maggie nursed her through her finally years. Poor thing clung to the belief that crystals would heal her, and I’m afraid Maggie fostered that belief, but there was no hope back then, so crystals were as good as anything, I suppose.
On the spur of the moment one night at a party towards the end of the 80s, just before I began my India adventures, I thought I hit on it. I was speaking to an artist friend of Scott’s and I said, “You know what I call you guys? The Gimmickists. If your art doesn’t have some gimmick in it, it doesn’t sell.” I thought that was genius in itself, but it wasn’t a notion that won me a lot of smiles that evening.
Yet the other night, over twenty years later, when I saw the poster of Basquiat for this new documentary in the window of Freak City, it’s still the one word that came to mind: Gimmick.