Dream Baby Dream, Suicide: A New York Story – an extract

 

Suicide Cover_D (1)By the age of 20, Martin Reverby’s life had been one long quest to take his playing to the next level. He had studied with legends and jammed with downtown’s finest, while his social life revolved around witnessing jazz greats ignite various New York niteries. Marty was a regular at the Village Vanguard, and became known by proprietor Max Gordon as quite the obsessed young disciple. “I could just walk in and he’d turn his head, so the guy at the door would be ‘Okay’.” Marty would slide into a good spot and watch, quietly soaking everything in, usually alone. The last thing he expected was to meet the love of his life.

On a fateful Friday night, Marty took the train downtown to the Seventh Avenue club to see his old hero Thelonious Monk play at the Vanguard. He would always try to check out Monk when he played locally.

“It was a Friday night and a full house, so I didn’t want to use up one of Max’s tables,” recalls Marty. “I was standing at the side from where you could watch everything, on the way to the back where the kitchen and men’s room were, basically the dressing room area. There was a wall where you could stand, see the band, and leave enough room for somebody to walk past to the john. The musicians would go by there too when they were done, and just hang out at the back.”

When he went to the bar, Marty noticed one of the waitresses collecting drinks on her tray. “Oh wow, who’s that?” he sighed to himself, suddenly charged with an internal current he had never experienced before; that once-in-a-lifetime swell which says things may never be the same again. Some call it love at first sight. Right there and then he had to find a way to break the ice and strike up a conversation with her. Marty had thought nothing of ringing a famous musician’s doorbell and asking for lessons, but this was an alien feeling he wasn’t used to, as he thought to himself, “How can I somehow get to know her? What can I think of to say?” I was worse at that time than I would be with musicians”.

Marty hatched a plan as he stood by the small bussing station recess where the waitresses dropped off the glasses. He knew she had to return there, and she frequently did. He also knew that all-important opening gambit was going to be vital if this girl, who “was so incredibly striking to me”, wasn’t going to slip through his hands and out of his life forever. One time when she returned, Marty leaned over, plucking up guts he didn’t know he had, smiled and asked, “Didn’t we meet in California?”

“It was probably the worst introductory pick up line anybody could ever think of!” he now laughs. “I don’t know how or why I thought of California. I’d never been further west than New Jersey! But I struck a goal. She lit up, and said, ‘Yeah, I lived in California’. It rang the perfect bell because it turned out she had lived there as a girl. She had seen Ornette Coleman when he first started out, and knew a lot of musicians on that scene. From there, we just hit it off. I went to the Vanguard again next night, watching Monk again. We went for a coffee, and then it went from there.”

Young MariHer name was Mari Montgomery. Temporarily staying with a friend in Connecticut, she’d been waitressing at the Vanguard to save money, so she could pick up her young son and daughter, who were living in California with her mother, before moving to New Mexico. Her plan was the only thing that went south. “She decided not to move to New Mexico, and instead, she stayed in New York and we made a life here.” Initially, they lived at Marty’s place, before Mari got an apartment on the Lower East Side to accommodate her children, Lyn and Greg, who were then three and ten. “Soon we had a family in New York. My place was too small, although we did live there for a while. We then always had two places, because I used to go back to mine every day to play and practice. It was like my studio. We had two children of our own in the first year and eight months, Miro and Elisha. I had a family with four children by the time I was 22.”

At this point, this book also becomes a love story, which will be picked up by Alan in the mid-80s when he meets Elizabeth Lamere, his own lifelong muse and partner but, just as he was hitting his 20s, Marty had met the soul-mate who would become the single biggest presence and influence in his life. For some it takes a lifetime to find that magic relationship where sparks fly in every direction on a bright new journey, if it ever happens at all.

MariIndirectly thanks to Monk, Marty had found the love of his life, and he hadn’t even been looking. “After a few years, I was already so far out, but in a way so young, that the chance of even finding a girlfriend my age was slim. All the girls my age were still living at home or at school. After a few years, maybe you can find somebody who’s something like you, but it’s not always that easy and how far can you go? Most people say ‘I can’t experience this, he doesn’t have any money, so I’ll be careful about it’, but with Mari there were no limits when it came to learning and creating, as she was already an artist and a musicians. I was already living in Manhattan in a flat, very developed in my own direction as an artist, and already far away from the possibility of being in any kind of mainstream! If I took a job it was to get by, so I could keep playing and growing. When I met Mari, she was young and vibrant all the way through, an incredible spirit, mind and intelligence. She was older than I was, although she always looked incredibly young. She was very pivotal to me, because she created a family around us as two artists who were otherwise so unconnected to mainstream life, and both loners. It was like she gave me my PHD in life at an advanced university. She had read and experienced and listened to so much, which enriched my sensibility incredibly. I wasn’t with someone who was saying ‘We got to make a living now’. She wanted me to be as far away from that as possible, so I could keep growing as an artist and a person. She opened the way for me to survive in the fullest way, instead of as a loner which, in many ways, was where I was heading.”

Marty never talked publicly about Mari until 2008, when the poignant dedication on his Stigmata album, inspired by her recent passing, prompted me to ask about her, and he opened up. But that’s 40 years away from that night at the Vanguard. I wanted to know more about this obviously remarkable woman, which sent Marty off on memories, then some research of his own. Marty discovered that Mari was born at the Harlem Hospital on West 142nd Street – just two blocks from the Lutheran Hospital on 144th Street where he had come into the world.

Not only that, Mari spent her earliest years living only a few blocks away from that hospital. “I never saw that before as I’ve never researched that region,” he marvelled, quietly elated. “We just never connected it, but it was so obvious. I’m really shocked, but positively. I’ve found the building where she lived after she was born at Harlem Hospital, a few blocks east of Convent Avenue in Sugar Hill. It wasn’t a very large avenue, maybe two streets, like a church row or something. I found some old pictures and the buildings are so beautiful and striking. They’re just so like her, in a way, like religious universities. It turns out her old building was on 141st Street and Convent Avenue, on the corner on the same side of the street as Lutheran Hospital, which is on the same parallel corner on 144th. That was a revelation! When I was born, Mari was already there.”

Mari told Marty about a child piano prodigy she had known in her building called Philippa Schuyler, who was five years her senior. Schuyler’s father was prominent black journalist George S. Schuyler, her white Texan mother a Mack Sennett bathing beauty from a former slave-owning family. The couple believed that mixed-race marriage could solve the social problems in America. “She was very similar to Mari, with a white mother and a black father,” says Marty. “Mari said she knew Philippa and used to hear her practicing. She got as far as someone from that background could go in America at that time.”

Philippa was composing by the age of five, soon giving recitals, making radio broadcasts and touring. Although a role model for kids in the 30s and 40s, the press liked to suggest she’d been her parents’ mixed race experiment. The bigotry which Philippa still encountered in the US caused her to largely continue her career in Europe. By her 30s, she’d abandoned piano to follow her father into journalism, but Philippa died in a helicopter crash in 1967 while covering the war in Vietnam. Her mother committed suicide two years later, still living in the house on Convent Avenue. In recent years, Halle Berry has announced her intention of making a biopic based on Philippa’s life, with Alicia Keys in the starring role, although nothing further is confirmed. I don’t think

Mari started taking piano lessons herself after her family moved to an apartment above her physician uncle’s Harlem surgery, where they remained for a couple of years before moving to Michigan. “Mari said that Michigan in the 50s was so incredibly repressed,” remembers Marty. “She felt no real connection with anything else that was going on, because apparently suburban Lansing was a very strange place to grow up in. Almost all of the high yellow and Creole community she lived in was materialistic, straight and middle class. Her aunts groomed her to be married, dressed her like a doll, with a flower in the side of her hair, always very prim and proper, never to say too much. She had very little contact or understanding with her immediate family, including her mother. She became a loner very early, and finally split home when they moved to California.”

The teenage Mari gravitated to LA’s happening jazz scene, where she met and became friends with drummer Max Roach, who was staying in California at the time and had formed his blues and gospel-lashed hard bop quintet with virtuoso trumpeter Clifford Brown. “Mari used to go and check out Max Roach, and they were pretty close,” says Marty. “Clifford Brown was 23 and married to a woman named Larue. Mari met them as well.”

After Max Roach became one of jazz’s most outspoken civil rights voices, he recorded 1960’s We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, a chillingly provocative concept album tracing the story of slavery and racism, and the most powerfully emotive musical statement from the whole era. The terrifyingly atmospheric ‘Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace’ presages Suicide’s ‘Frankie Teardrop’ with Abbey Lincoln’s elemental tour de force of screams, whimpers and agonised banshee wails. It’s as if she’s wrenching years of cruelty and brutality from her guts and out through her mouth, finishing the song drained, sobbing and almost post-coital. “That’s a very strong album,” agrees Marty. “That was really a focused record, and probably the best album they did together. I recently heard it on the radio again. ‘Triptych’ reminded me of ‘Frankie Teardrop’. It had never really registered before because I had never focused on it so clearly. But I remember thinking it was from a similar world.”

We Insist! was a brave statement at a time when sit-ins were in full swing as a dignified protest, as reflected in the striking cover image of three black men sitting at a lunch counter in front of an apprehensive-looking white waiter. The word ‘freedom’ got kicked to death in the 1960s, but this album was its deepest felt, most extreme statement, and predictably resulted in Roach and Lincoln being blacklisted by much of the US recording industry.

Mari was also a regular at the Hillcrest Club, where pianist Paul Bley was starting his prolific career, and recently deceased sax colossus Ornette Coleman had first hit a major stage. “Apparently Ornette just walked into the club one day,” says Marty. “He used to wear a heavy winter coat in the hottest California summer, and looked unusual immediately. He asked to sit in with Paul Bley, and everyone was astonished at this whole new music coming in. Don Cherry may have been in the audience and would soon do the same thing. That was the beginning of Ornette’s professional life.” Although he wouldn’t make his epoch-defining The Shape Of Jazz To Come until later that decade, the scorching sets Ornette played at the Hillcrest with Bley, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins got the free jazz ball rolling. Ornette was no stranger to audiences trying to beat him up, or smash his saxophone, and musicians stomping off stage in outrage at the new sounds he was summoning, but there could be no stopping him becoming one of the most revered experimentalists of all time. His high-profile 1959 opening at New York’s Five Spot changed the course of jazz.

Mari was friends with Ornette to the point where, for years, as Marty recalls, the pair would stop and talk when they bumped into each other in the East Village. She was also close to Bertha Hope, wife of pianist Elmo Hope, who came of age in the bebop years with close buddies Bud Powell and Monk, toured with Chet Baker and moved to LA in 1958. Marty describes him as “the transition between Bud Powell and the next generation, which could be only three years younger in those days.” When Bertha and Elmo moved back to New York in 1961, she worked at the telephone company by day and played clubs at night, while he recorded scintillating albums such as 1963’s Songs From Rikers Island. After her heroin-addicted husband passed away in 1967, Bertha continued his legacy.

Despite being surrounded by such musical brilliance, Mari was still searching for kindred spirits and her soul mate when she returned to New York in the late 50s. By now, she was pregnant with her son Greg, whose godfather would be Max Roach, after he helped her financially to leave California. “Before she came to New York, she still felt there was no one else out there, until she discovered other artists, and the Beats,” says Marty. “The Beat movement was really something then. She knew Kerouac’s wife and daughter but not Kerouac as, by that time, he had split up with them and had no contact. It made her feel like there were others like her around. But, although she was of that mentality, she wasn’t strictly a Beat generation person. She was beyond that too.”

Although Mari had enjoyed working at Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s experimental Living Theatre in SoHo, 1967 saw her planning to move out of New York and see what that brought. In the nick of time, she had found her soul-mate, and life was about to change again. “Mari knew so much and was like a mentor to me. She had lived and experienced so much, and was so broad in what she knew in terms of music and art. In our whole life together, I always felt she was the most erudite, advanced artist and spirit I’d ever met. I realised later she was actually a child of the Harlem Renaissance, like the next generation from Langston Hughes and an inheritor of that golden period of culture. She had a renaissance outlook to learn everything about arts and science, and combine them in her heart and thinking. She had so much to offer a young, aspiring artist, which is why I always wanted to learn so much about everything in music that I didn’t know. I learned it wasn’t just about one style so I was lucky, in a way, that I was never successful for a long time in any one niche, until I really found myself.”

Marty also recalls Mari as a fantastic writer, always looking for the life beyond racial divides. “I used to try and encourage her to put together her letters to her family in a book, they are so incredible. There’s a certain native truth about America and the people of the time which comes through in them. She had been to so many places that she talked about; she had a whole country side and a totally sophisticated urban side to her. She had no brothers or sisters and not everybody was so close, but they all came from very interesting backgrounds. They didn’t come through as being black or white, but mixed people who were part American Indian. She loved that she had American Indian and Chinese blood in her, and Welsh blood too. She felt she was part of the future, in that sense, because she saw it as being a mixture of colour and ethnicity. She was brought up in a time of severe institutional segregation and bigotry. She experienced all that growing up, so she knew what that was all about, and experienced it in various ways through her whole life. It wasn’t easy. In fact, the whole American experience wasn’t that all-embracing for her. That’s why she was always looking to leave.”

Marty had found his dream girl, his centre and life’s inspiration. The next logical step in his personal musical evolution, having cut his teeth with masters would be to form his own band.

Major eruptions were taking place in Alan Bermowitz’s life too, after he left his Brooklyn Heights family home to devote all his time to being an artist. “One day, Alan just jumped up and got going,” says Marty. “He still lived in Brooklyn, but with a friend of his, who was an older photographer who had a couple of floors. He was a nice guy, who had a family there and was making a living already. He knew Alan and let him have the basement to live in.”

Alan was already aware that SoHo was becoming downtown’s arts hotspot, and an alternative to the snootier establishments uptown. The mood of the times needed its own enclave for unshackled expression. The decaying and deserted-after-dark Cast Iron District was so perfect it would become the birth-place of Suicide.

Rev and Vega Photo Mel Austin

Rev and Vega by Mel Austin

It is often said that Manhattan’s real estate boom started in SoHo, but in the 60s it was a 19th century industrial slum. Earlier that century, the area below Houston Street was mainly inhabited by wealthy New Yorkers, who patronised the hotels and theatres on Broadway, along with the brothels on Mercer and Greene. Atypically for New York, its streets had names instead of numbers, titled after generals from the Revolutionary War, including Lafayette, Crosby, Wooster and Greene. Using a technique developed in England in the late 18th century, foundries along the East River were first to manufacture the bespoke cast iron frames which could support tall buildings using pre-determined moulds, rather than the more laborious and expensive method of carving them out of stone and marble. It also meant large panes of glass could be used. The 1857 E.V. Haugwhout store at the corner of Grand and Broadway was the first to incorporate iron into a building’s structure, also the first to boast a steam-driven passenger elevator. The modern skyscraper was born, and SoHo soon boasted the world’s most impressive array.

Most of SoHo’s colossal structures were built before 1890, and used by the textile industry, mainly immigrant workers from the Lower East Side. When the industry shrank after World War Two, the buildings were mainly used for long-term storage, but populated by a few artists attracted by the cheap rents. When New York writer Henry Miller, who’d written the teenage Alan’s favourite Tropic of Capricorn, visited painter Beauford Delaney at 181 Greene Street in the 1940s, his essay in Remember to Remember talked about “streets which seem commemorated to the pangs and frustrations of the artist; having nothing to do with art. Shunned by all living as soon as the work of day is done, they are invested with the sinister shadows of crime and with prowling alley cats which thrive on the garbage and ordure that litter the gutters and pavements.” There were frequent fires in the dilapidated industrial tundra, which was tagged ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’. More businesses fled the area when the dreaded Robert Moses threatened his proposed ten-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have run between the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges on the east and Holland Tunnel on the west, doing a South Bronx-style demolition job through the cast iron cluster, and the neighbourhood’s heart. The project was stalled through the sterling efforts of community activist Jane Jacobs, but a damning October 1962 City Club pamphlet deemed the area “The Wastelands of New York City”.

New York Commissioner of Planning Chester Rapkin’s 1962 Study of ‘The South Houston Industrial Area’, which is credited with coining the term SoHo, noted the declining businesses, but advised the city not to destroy the buildings, or evict the remaining vestiges of the rag and garment industries, which were a source of tax. By that time, the Artists Tenants Association was petitioning Mayor Robert Wagner for permission to live and work in districts not officially zoned for residential use, or any buildings lacking a residential Certificate of Occupancy. The city agreed that no more than two artists could live in such buildings, providing they stick a sign on the front saying ‘A.I.R.’ (Artist In Residence), which identified the floors for firemen. Crucially, real estate agent Jack Klein then persuaded neighbourhood landlords to rent their empty buildings to artists. The landlords were only too happy to get income from these “raw space” lofts, with their weathered walls and leaky ceilings, so offered prospective artist owners purchase mortgages, which were repaid directly to the seller as a red tape short cut. SoHo started filling up with the artists who were undeterred by its scary reputation or lack of grocery stores, schools, pharmacies and churches. Only neighbourhood bars such as Fanelli’s on Prince and Mercer nodded at facilities demanded by normal civilisation. Fluxus founder George Maciunas was an early invester, buying buildings and dividing them into artists’ co-ops, while Jonas Mekas opened the Filmmakers’ Cinemateque on the ground floor of 80 Worcester and the Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse became the first homosexual dancehall.

The cracked, graffiti-splattered streets were littered with discarded wreckage, industrial trash, wood, metal, rubber and construction materials, which came in handy when Alan Bermowitz needed raw materials for the light sculptures he had started making from junk he found in the street, cheap religious bric-a-brac and light bulbs. Soon he found himself part of SoHo’s flourishing new arts scene, saying now, “SoHo was the centre of the universe then. Everybody went there, it was the apex, full of artists and also manufacturers, who were hardworking people. I loved it.” He joined the volatile Art Workers’ Coalition, which brought together artists, writers, filmmakers and critics to pressure New York’s art establishments into loosening up their exclusivity, notably the Museum of Modern Art. Formed in January 1969, after Greek kinetic sculptor Vassilakis Takis removed one of his early sculptures from the MoMA in protest at it being shown without his permission or input, the AWC. lobbied for women, and a wider ethnic representation. It also pressured museums into standing against the Vietnam war, most famously with the And Babies poster, depicting innocent victims of the March 1968 My Lai rape and slaughter by US troops, whose circulation stoked the groundswell opposition to America’s war crime cover-ups.

The original consortium which met at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street included Takis, sculptor Wen-Ying Tsai, German conceptual artist Hans Haacke, writer Willoughby Sharp, minimalist artist Carl Andre and Village Voice art critic John Perreault. When the MoMA refused to allow the group’s proposed public forum about its relationship with artists and society, the AWC held demos in front of the museum and an open hearing on April 10 1969, at the New York School of Visual Arts on 21st Street, where Alan’s friend Howie Wolper was a student. Over 300 members of the city’s artistic community, including Howie and Alan, attended the meeting to debate artists’ rights, museum policy and political issues, including the Vietnam war. When the AWC organised its ‘Moratorium to Art to End The War in Vietnam’ that October, the MoMA, Whitney Museum, Jewish Museum and other galleries closed for the day. Although the AWC only lasted until late 1971, its activities brought crucial changes to how museums interacted with artists.

After Paula Cooper established her gallery in a second floor space on Prince in 1968, the first street level operation arrived the following year when Ivan Karp opened OK Harris on West Broadway, the neighbourhood’s widest thoroughfare (the Sixth Avenue elevated railway had once ran over it). Many local artists got their first crack at showing through the cigar-chomping Karp, who saw himself as SoHo’s unofficial Mayor. He had grown up in Brooklyn and, after starting as one of the Village Voice’s first art critics in the mid-50s, became Leo Castelli’s associate director in 1958, giving early breaks to Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and other Pop artists. He opened OK Harris (which he said was supposed to be “a tough American name that sounded like that of a riverboat gambler”) in 1969 as the first gallery on West Broadway, showing names including Duane Hanson, Deborah Butterfield, Manny Farber, Richard Pettibone, Nancy Rubins, Malcolm Morley…and Alan Bermowitz. Karp’s main mission was to find and encourage young artists. “Ivan had a way of making you feel good,” wrote Warhol in his Popism memoir, after Karp had constructively criticised his early work before helping show it to the world in his ten years with Castelli.

Ivan certainly made Alan feel good the following year when he “came down and saw my sculptures with a Canadian art dealer, who was a big shot at the time, and said ‘You’ve got to get out of Brooklyn. I want you to be here at my gallery in two weeks.’ It was the start of my career. I still remember signing with him.”

Although he had no time for polite gallery etiquette, Alan started getting known for the fizzing, flashing light sculptures he constructed out of abandoned TV sets, fluorescent tube lights he stole from stores by sticking them down his trouser leg, subway lamps, chains, broken glass and electrical detritus he found on the streets which, in a brilliantly Dadaist move, he threw back out on them after the show was over, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

Alan remembers a rattled Ivan shouting at him to turn down the four or five radios he had blasting simultaneously tuned to different stations, and described constructing his tangled monoliths with “a not-give-a-shit attitude about just piling up a load of garbage and proving it could look good too, just throwing a bunch of lights on sculptures.” He adds “I was never thinking about having a career in anything. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was just doing it, although I soon started changing… .”

Peter Zaremba, future singer with Suicide’s later gig and label-mates the Fleshtones, remembers Alan’s show as his first encounter with Vega-world. “I first became aware of Alan when I was a student, and stumbled into a show of his sculpture at OK Harris. There were all these big, dangerous-looking piles of dismantled TVs and electronics on the floor, with what looked like live wires sticking out of them. I remember a terrified gallery-going mom racing in to pull out her little boy, who had wandered in while she was admiring some other work in another room.”

“Part of Alan’s intensity was that he had left a fairly conventional life,” says Marty. “He had graduated as an art and science major and was still doing art, including a lot of very unique drawings. When I met him he had left his wife and his job. He had basically left that life. It was the whole Gauguin trip, y’know?”

By 1969, Alan had become a janitor-director at the Project Of Living Artists, situated in a spacious, renovated second-floor loft on the corner of Broadway and Waverly Place. It was funded by the New York State Council for the Arts to provide an open-all-hours space where artists, musicians, poets and radical political groups could express themselves, using words, music, slide shows, or any means they chose. Or, as the council’s literature put it, “a center of cultural activities which sponsors meetings of artist groups, workshops, and exhibitions”, with “live sketching, film showings, dance recitals and poetry readings; and free exhibit facilities for artist groups concerned with relating the arts to society.”

Alan got 90 dollars a month and a free space to develop his experiments in sound and vision. The Project soon became a safe and welcoming refuge for not just artists and musicians but citizens of the streets with nowhere else to go.

“We had a grant from the New York State government to keep it open 24 hours a day, so that any artist or anyone who called himself an artist who wanted to do something could come into this space and just do it for nothing,” recalls Alan. “It was also like a political haven for anti-Vietnam radicals, who had their part congressional coalition groups. We got a lot of crazy radicals coming there to do their thing, whatever it was, but a lot of great jazz bands came in there too, all kinds of things. The first women’s lib meetings were held there. We’d probably been infiltrated by the FBI already, because all these radicals had meetings, but one night, in a joking manner, we decided, ‘Let’s go kidnap Henry Kissinger’, who was Secretary of State at the time, as a joke. Next day they fucking invaded us. The FBI came in on us, man, searching for shit. Unbelievable times. After a while, the crazies tried to take the place over and we had to get ’em out.”

Now Alan was in the right place, next came the event that would crystalise his vocation and jerk his destiny into sharp focus. And that was before the coming collision with Martin Rev.

From Dream Baby Dream, Suicide: A New York Story (Omnibus Press) by Kris Needs