Saturday, 5 January 2019

Anthony Bourdain

Like many I was saddened by the death of Anthony Bourdain. He was the real deal in a medium full of botoxed puppets who spin their seven-minute slots of scripted talking points in between interminable ads.

Right from the start I felt I knew him from somewhere, but such things happen for as Joan Rivers once wisely proclaimed, “After 50 everything rings a bell.”

On reading his obituary I thought I’d found the answer: he had been chef at Les Halles, one of my favorite restaurants, mere crawling distance from Rocky Sullivan’s and Paddy Reilly’s. 

And so I figured he was one of those gregarious lords of the kitchen who descend on your table soliciting compliments, usually while your mouth is full.

But when I watched his final CNN show devoted to the Lower East Side the penny dropped.

It was nothing spectacular - he was just another face in the crowded mad scene of the early ‘80’s down around Avenues A and B. 

I never spoke to him but I saw him often enough, usually standing in the center of a crowd, his charismatic face lit up with laughter and booze, the center of attention in a scene of many stars. 

But there was another recurring memory of him – solitary and hunched over his drink, often picking at a small plate of food.

Did you ever notice that some people habitually gravitate to the same part of whatever bar they find themselves – Anthony’s was down near the service station where he could banter with the bartender and waitresses when the mood hit him.

When he talked about his heroin use in that last show, pieces of his puzzle fell into place. Many hard drug users are dual characters, extroverts dominating the conversation, but more often than not loners wearing almost visible “don’t mess with me” psychic armor to keep the world at bay.

His Lower East Side CNN show rocked me back on my heels. I had blacked out so much of the scene, partly because I spun off into a different universe when Black 47 took off; I moved away from Avenue B and a world I’d long been a part of.

Bourdain kept posing the same question to Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie and Lydia Lunch among others, “Was the scene on the Lower East Side really that special?”

In typical LES cool, each of the interviewees made a point of stating that “it was just a phase, life goes on, I’m still creative,” with the unspoken plea, “you should see what I’m doing now!”

And they’re right. No matter what you’ve achieved in the creative world, you’re only as good as your new song, novel, painting or film. 

Perhaps, the most grounded of his interviewees, the eternally creative John Lurie put it best. “I’m just glad I survived the excesses of the times and am still working.”

But there was something beyond special about the Lower East Side in those years - just think of Hilly Crystal’s CBGB’s! What a place – what a guy, so understated and matter of fact – but would there have been an international Punk scene without him?

Hilly’s own musical taste ran to Country and Bluegrass, and yet his club spawned a musical movement that rocked the world and changed the aesthetic of popular music. 

I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the amazing Television emerge from CB’s miasma of mediocrity, for Hilly gave everyone and his mother a shot – including me!

But Lower East Side music was also the background track to a wonderful DIY kaleidoscope of poets, painters, choreographers, novelists, dreamers & cultural revolutionaries that you collided with in the bars, clubs, galleries and parties that seemed to go round the clock.

Craziness too – I once got a lovely kiss from Debbie Harry who upon hearing my accent mistook me for a Boomtown Rat.  Ah well, mistaken identity it may have been but she was our Marilyn and I still treasure the moment.

Yeah, Mr. Bourdain, your suspicions were right – those years in Alphabet City were amazing. They didn’t last. Nothing does. But thanks for the CNN memories and that tunnel back to a spiky past when everything seemed possible.

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