Thor Garcia's Reviews > City Primeval: New York, Berlin, Prague

City Primeval by Louis Armand
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it was amazing

This is a unique, strange, terrible and vital book, a compendium that nearly overwhelms with its amazing richness. A mad mix of memoir, dreams, documentary and photography, CITY PRIMEVAL offers a ramshackle but often vivid glimpse into the “underground/punk” scenes of New York, Berlin and Prague across the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

It is bound to interest anyone who has even minimal fluency in Western counterculture of the last half-century. More importantly, it should be regarded as an essential repository of valuable historical writings and photographs. It also serves as a marker of how far “the underground,” and art and society as whole, have progressed in recent decades (not very)—and how much has been lost along the way (a big bunch).

Co-curators Louis Armand and Robert Carrithers deserve acclaim for assembling a remarkable and mind-boggling collection of articles and artifacts (and “curators” is indeed the right word, for the editing here, such as there was, seems to have employed a very light hand—yes, which adds to the book's appeal). They have succeeded in documenting the vast, and surprising, amount of cross-pollination of artists and movements across these three famous capitals. The articles by musicians, filmmakers, graphic artists, gadflies, hangers-on—some reasonably well-known, most little-known, a few on the far fringes—are of varying quality, but they usually have something of merit to tell us. (Also, nearly everyone who makes an appearance seems to have been a drunk, drug addict or prostitute of some kind. Ah, artists and punkers—putting in the hard work so no one else has to!)

CITY PRIMEVAL opens with a startling assault of critical analysis. Louis Armand’s introduction is entitled “Reactionary Sentimentalism,” an epithet he uses to hammer home the point that the dynamic scenes associated with New York, Berlin and Prague are now little more than objects of myth and nostalgia, obsolete and insignificant. Whatever energy, optimism and awareness these scenes had was long ago neutered and co-opted into “simulations,” "spectacles," thrill rides and crude profit centers by the lords of gentrification, commercialism and Disneyfication.

Armand's perspicacious, eye-opening introduction makes a heroic, nearly encyclopedic attempt to organize artists and movements linked to the three cities in a kind of anarcho-anticapitalist brotherhood of the subversive alternative and uber-angsty. But the supposed idealism of these romantics was destined to flounder. Armand ascertains, quite correctly, that the forces that have long controlled (and continue to ruin) the world have savagely outplayed these artists and movements by successfully making “commodification” appear to be the only possible “revolutionary” path for the noble dreamers and thinkers of today.

Armand writes: “What the West, aided by the likes of Malcolm McLaren, realized in fits & starts at the end of the ‘70s, which the East apparently didn’t, was that dissent was worth big dollars—and that dissent channeled into entertainment & lifestyle merch was the most effective form of mass mind-control yet invented.” Armand quotes the Plastic People of the Universe’s Vratislav “I’m the Hairy Hippie Professor Guy” Brabenec, speaking about the aftermath of Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution: “A revolution is supposed to change things, but what has changed? I don’t consider myself any less subversive now than I was back then. I am no less a dissident in a society of shopping, shopping & shopping than I was in a society of socialism, socialism, socialism. It’s all still shit, only different shit.”

These grim conditions are spectacularly crystallized in the New York section of CITY PRIMEVAL by “Cinema of Transgression” film champion Nick Zedd. The auteur behind “They Eat Scum," “Geek Maggot Bingo” and many other mischievous movies provides a fitting epitaph, not only for New York but for Berlin and Prague as well: “NYC is now a dead zone overpopulated with tourists, conformists, yuppies, middle class students & other vermin with no interest in alternatives to the dominant culture’s restrictive view of reality which is designed to benefit landlords, bankers, developers, rich investors & foreign interlopers.”

Zedd is no less harsh on his fellow “underground” artists, whom he castigates for failing to create—and preserve—viable alternatives to the propaganda and commodification that overload and pollute nearly all communication channels: “NYC breeds paranoia & assholism. . . . The mutated creatures who stay are eaten out from within, hollow crusts, posing as former versions of themselves in order to rationalize their status as outsiders while being insiders in a snobby & exclusive in-crowd; players in a small pool of backstabbers. Even within the ghettoized scenes of competing subcultures, a substrata of socially retarded dorks & squares snub those who dare to infringe upon their domain if they are perceived to be too cool or intelligent. The resultant anti-intellectualism & anti-style prejudice is thus fertilized in a malignant environment inimical to growth & creativity, particularly when an attendant desire for commercial success corrupts what little vision exists in the minds of these provincial art cripples.”

Zedd has more to say—and his contribution is distinctive because it is one of the very few clear voices of resistance to the current order to be found in CITY PRIMEVAL. While Zedd rages against the dying of the light, nearly all other writers have adopted a tone of complacency, resignation and/or self-congratulatory solipsism, seemingly unconcerned about the fate of the world and art beyond their tiny alt-bubbles. This doesn’t reduce what we can learn from their contributions but, viewed through the lenses provided by Zedd and Armand, rather enables us to enhance our apprehension of the world's dire current cultural, social and political conditions.

How, indeed, have we arrived in a world dominated by a twisted, homopolitan, corporate culture, where nearly everyone exists at the mercy of the military-industrial and surveillance economy? A world in which all opposition has been rendered mute (and moot)? In which ordinary people have become prey, little more than lab rats, experimented on and exploited by malevolent, hidden hands? In which the voices screaming from the nominal left and right are increasingly intolerant, selfish and cruel? In which mainstream art and entertainment are little more than glossified pap selling contradiction, misdirection and indoctrination? In which people travel everywhere with corporation-controlled personal robots that record their activities and instruct them on what's cool and what to do and where to go next? These are crucial questions—and the inability of most people to even fully acknowledge them, let alone respond in a meaningful way, offers little confidence that the “common man” will ever tear off his blinders and begin to work in his own best interests.

The New York section also includes “The New Punk Girl, NYC 1979” by Victor Bockris, best known for his biographies of Warhol, Patti Smith, Blondie, William Burroughs, John Cale, Lou Reed and others. The piece starts off very promisingly, with Bockris seemingly sincerely telling of his romance with Damita Richter, a “punk rock Lolita” and “The Girl Who Kicked Over My World.” In a sizzling sequence, Bockris quotes Damita recounting her experiences slutting and boozing around Manhattan with the likes of the tragic Anya Phillips, Sylvain Sylvain, Joey Ramone and so on. This is great stuff. Unfortunately, Bockris simply can’t maintain the story at this level (What, Vic, too much “bug powder”?). After the auspicious opening, the piece rapidly degenerates into a long, bitter rant about what Bockris terms “negative girls.” I kept waiting for the punchline, but none ever emerged. In the hands of another writer it might work, but Bockris is no Warhol, Burroughs or Lou Reed. Embarrassingly, the “negative girl” riff devolves into a whiny harangue that features fantasies of violence and repetitive nonsense like: “A negative girl will never be happy. A negative girl will never be satisfied. A negative girl will never be afraid to admit she is bored, tired, depressed, broke & has V.D. again. Every negative girl carries a camera in her cunt, a taperecorder in her head, a loudspeaker in her mouth & television in her eyes.” O.K., Victor, we get it. You thought you fell in love with a cute slutty punk girl, but she didn’t really care about you and your William Burroughs research. And no, they never do. She dumped you and you felt hurt. So what, Victor. Come on, guy, buck up—get over it! Another will be along in ten minutes—you can tell her you listened to the complete Metal Machine Music with David Bowie!

The New York section also features notable pieces from performance artist Penny Arcade, Rudi Protrudi of the Fuzztones, club kingpin Rudolf Piper, director Carl Haber, artist Roxanne Fontana, musician Phil Shoenfelt and affable man-about-town Anthony Haden Guest (whose piece memorably begins, “I was speaking to Toby Beavers one morning. . . .”). The section also includes shots by celebrity photographer Marcia Resnick, photos of John Sex, Wendy Wild, Ann Magnuson and the enigmatic countertenor Klaus Nomi, remembrances of Nico, G.G. Allin and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a Carrithers interview of the always interviewable Lydia Lunch.

Somewhat annoyingly (and seemingly inevitably), many of the usual, continually flogged NYC suspects—e.g., CBGB’s, Keith Haring, Warhol, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Ivan Král, even Madonna—make appearances in text or photos (the pinnacle is perhaps Tom Scully’s (unintentionally?) side-splitting lines, “I was at CBGB's at the start of everything. I even remember seeing Bob Dylan watching a Patti Smith show there.”) There’s a general theme of star-fucking in the New York section, but it seems less about gratuitous name-dropping than simply the capture of seemingly special moments in time by people who were there.

Carrithers kicks off the Berlin section by invoking Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (which eventually became Cabaret) and his memory of a scorching New York gig by Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten. We are then treated to Carrithers’ photographs and memories of a cast of freaks, queers and artists such as Dieter Rita Scholl, Captain Rummelsnuff, Marcus Wolff, Pia Staudacher, Timmi König, the Blue Bunny and Bernd Brecht. Die Haut cofounder Christoph Dreher writes about collaborating with Nick Cave and The Birthday Party. There’s also a superb piece by indie music figure Mark Reeder, Ian Wright’s rumination on the 1979 Berlin show of New York noise band Suicide, and a tribute to altie filmmaker Timo Jacobs, and a piece by musician Bettina Köster.

Tough-guy filmmaker Miron Zownir’s excellent piece includes the tale of how he was working as a bouncer at the Roxy in New York in 1984 when “a little black guy with a monkey on his shoulder approached me. Usually there was a policy that single guys wouldn’t get in unless ladies accompanied them or they were really well known. Well that that little guy & his monkey looked cool & I thought I was doing him a favour so I said to him, ‘Tonight, it’s only ten bucks.’
“But he got completely hysterical.
“‘I never pay!’ he squeaked indignantly. ‘I’m Michael Jackson!’”

Lengthy pieces by Julia Murakami, André Werner, Kenton Turk, Oliver Schütz, Carola Göllner, Nhoah Hoena, and Steve Morell are roundly successful in demonstrating the monotony of life in artistic circles. Other contributions include Carrithers’ interview with the late Bruno Adams, the Australian frontman of the Berlin-based Fatal Shore, and a remembrance of Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall by Fatal Shore member Chris Hughes. The Berlin section is notably thick with photos by Ilse Ruppert (another picture of Klaus Nomi—the third in this book—thank you!), J. Jackie Baier and Semra Sevin.

The Prague section opens with Carrithers’ photographs of “Icons of the Prague ‘90s.” They include the late club impresario John Bruce Shoemaker, Prague Post Editor Alan Levy, Václav Havel posing with Arthur Miller, dissident musician and Respekt magazine founder Jan Macháček, and partygoers at Radost, which at one point was the “hippest spot of Prague nightlife,” attended by a range of Czech and foreign celebrities. Tremendously, Carrithers' photo collection also includes the Sword-Swallower and the Devil Man of Charles Bridge. These were freakish men, true "indies of the underground," who amplified Prague's atmosphere into something surreal and carnivalesque—and you simply will not find their ilk in the Prague of the current day (Ondráček and Antonín—all is forgiven! Where art thou now, where hath you gone, when the city so needeth you?).

“Back in the early 90s, Prague was full of the adventurous types, unlike today how it is full of shit-grinning yuppies & sophomores on one-semester exchanges,” remembers club owner and early expat figure Glen Emery in his absolutely indispensable “Prague Unplugged,” which should enter the canon as required reading for anyone attempting to understand the "fucking in the streets" flavor of Prague in this period. “When us originals got here, the country was still called Czechoslovakia, the currency was still non-convertible, money was changed with the Arabs in sleazy backstreet bars, piles of lignite coal lined the streets, every 5th car was a Trabant or some other 2-stroke aberration, the street-sweepers used brooms made of willow branches, temperature inversions kept the school kids at home, every 4th building was abandoned, there was AMEX & no McDonalds, “9 to 5” was far off on the horizon, 'mortgages' & 'leasing' were not in the lexicon, none of the women shaved & nobody wore deodorant, Cosmopolitan had not yet taught the female population how to spurn men, the public transport smelled like low-tide, Mama Club was hip & the Bunkr was cranking, the tank was pink, there was not a cop to be seen & Havel was still smoking & drinking.” Emery's extremely amusing piece goes on to detail his experiences opening a club in the historic Obecní dům municipal house and a brief takeover of the historic Café Slavia.

The Prague section also includes Roman Černý’s photos and memories of luminaries including Plastic People of the Universe’s Vratislav Brabenec, art-world tough guy Milan Knížák (captured topless, in full porcine glory), dissident ringleader Ivan Martin Jirous, dissident playwright Pavel Kohout, and Ivan Král and Iggy Pop. Carrithers’ interview with pink tank painter David Černý is an utter hoot. In answer to a question about his scandalous “Entropa” sculpture, his EU-funded work that managed to pile awe-inspiring, stereotyped ridicule on all EU member countries, Černý seemingly fails to explain a single thing about the creation of the work. Instead, he relates an hilarious, convoluted tale about how salmonella poisoning deposited a bacteria in his body that allowed him to drink as much vodka as he wanted, all day in fact, because the bacteria rapidly disintegrated the alcohol, preventing him from getting hangovers. This dream condition ended only after Černý broke his collarbone and was prescribed antibiotics. One can only say: More David Černý, please!

The best piece in the entire CITY PRIMEVAL collection may be Christoph Brandl’s “The Circus of Sensuality: Avantgarde Prague in the Early ‘90s,” which recounts Brandl’s ownership of Tam Tam Club in Slovanský Dům and his ambition to lead Prague’s return to the heights of avant-garde performance culture. Brandl describes his relationship with Curtis Jones, an Afro-American singer and dancer in his 50s who was already a Prague underground legend for his flamboyance, lecherous ways and addictions to dope and booze. (Author’s note: Almost immediately after my arrival in Prague in 1992, Jones propositioned me in the Bunkr club, saying he’d like to snack on my “long, beautiful neck.”) Brandl hitches Tam Tam’s fortunes to Jones’ star, which turns out to be a devil’s bargain. Writes Brandl: “(Jones’) performances were a foreplay, which often led to a climax in his dressing room with a bunch of young boys, who cherished him as if he was a dream come true. At the end of an evening, sheer exhaustion blemished his gestalt beyond recognition. But no matter how wasted he was he tried to keep his grace. Anyone who heard or saw him for the first time was taken aback. Or appalled. No one was left untouched.”

Brandl eventually accepts Jones’ proposal to launch the Circus of Sensuality, a pricey production involving real circus performers and copious nudity, in the style of French vaudeville. But high ticket prices and the bizarre nature of the experiment led to poor attendance, eventually forcing the closure of the club. Writes Brandl: “Weeks after the circus’ initial performance, & about six months after I had opened it, I had to close down Tam Tam. In a newspaper interview I blamed the city for revoking my licence because of lack of cleanliness. I also said I was not willing to give in to protection money racketeers from former Yugoslavia. That was only half of the truth. The other half was: Not enough people came to the club & supported it. No hard feelings toward Praguers, but they didn’t seem to get what we were attempting: To bring back the avant-garde to where it had been almost 100 years ago: the centre of Prague. In addition, too many employees refilled their empty pockets with Tam Tam money to provide for their choice of drug.”


Note: CITY PRIMEVAL includes Thor Garcia’s story about Czech serial killer Jaroslava Fabiánová, as inspired by Robert Carrithers’ “Prague Dark Portrait” photograph. See “RAPE/MURDER!: Robert Carrithers’ Dark Portrait Series,” at https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog...
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May 16, 2017 – Finished Reading
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