The Bar Project: Voices from an Artists' Community

by Francie Lyshak

 

Francie Lyshak Brad Ellis Bette Bourne Joe Vojtko
Lavinia Coop Stephen Harvey John Lurie Tony Nunziata
Ray Dobbins Gary Indiana Larry Mitchell Bill Rice
  Allen Frame Richard Morrison  

 

Evan Lurie

Composer, Musician

 

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Evan Lurie Interview

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Tarantella by Evan Lurie (written for Dog People, a play by Gary Indiana, performed at Bill Rice's Studio).

 

July 12, 2013

Francie: This is Evan Lurie, my friend and a wonderful musician who I have known over decades. He was part of this community of artists who hung out at The Bar and Bill Rice’s studio. This interview is about this community of people, how they influenced you, how that time period and culture affected you as a person and how it affected your work.

Evan: You say The Bar and Bill Rice’s studio around 1980. I’m very bad with what happened when.

Francie: This was before AIDS hit. People seem to be able to place things before that and into the beginning of it. Also you were one of the people that did go to Bill Rice’s studio. Everybody didn’t.

Evan: I lived at 9 E. 3rd St., which is next to a vacant lot that is next to Bill’s building. I remember seeing his backyard for the first time and being just astonished that this sort of magical fairyland thing was back there. I guess I don’t remember whose idea it first was to do theatrical plays back there. But I remember the first time that I was at Bill’s apartment thinking, ‘Okay, this is it. This is Bohemia. I have arrived!’ It was almost why you came to New York. Bill seemed older. Not a lot older. In 1980 I would have been 26.

Francie: I don’t know how old he would have been, but I should have figured that out. He was maybe 20 years older than us.

Evan: Yes, maybe 20. Walking through that apartment, you felt like you were walking into at time capsule. There were holes in the floor, and the clocks all had the wrong time, and then there were his paintings. I’d known him as this professional curmudgeon almost. I didn’t realize that he painted at first, until I guess one drunken night after The Bar closed and a bunch of us went to Bill’s. I don’t remember who I was with; but that was probably the first time that I was there. Then I saw the work and I remember seeing that tree painting, which I saw again when Stephen Harvey had that show recently at SHFA Gallery.

Francie: Yes, it is beautiful.

Evan: Yes, shockingly beautiful. Yes, The Bar was transitioning from a quasi-straight bar to a gay bar. My brother John used to hang out there.

Francie: People tell me that it was a bar that had a space for everybody. I know people were looking for love and sex at a certain point, and it was mostly gay. It seems like everyone I’ve spoken to does say that there were always all kinds of people--of different races and ages, with women and straight people. There was a space for everybody.

Evan: Then it did become pretty much a gay bar. Not specifically a men’s gay bar.

I remember there were a couple of kids who looked to me like they were from Kansas. They were hanging out at The Bar and I remember asking someone, “Why are they hanging out here?” They said, “Because he’s gay and she’s a lesbian.” I said, (laughing) “Oh! This never occurred to me.”

At the time, wasn’t there a strip bar across the street? No maybe it was gone from the corner of Fifth Street. There was this topless bar, but maybe that was earlier. Because I lived in New York, then left, and then came back.

Francie: Yes, that’s when we arrived and later we moved up to 2nd Avenue. I wonder if you could try to describe the environment then. You said that you went to Bill’s studio and they had plays there.

Evan: There were plays in the backyard. That was a little bit later. In the span of these things, of course, a year could feel like an eon, between one event and another. But I remember the plays in the backyard. I missed what may have been the very first thing, Allen Frame doing pieces based off of David Wojnarowicz. I think that was first. Then Gary Indiana did his Dog People, which I actually acted in.

Francie: That’s the one I remember the most.

Evan: I have somewhere the tape of the music for Dog People. I saw it some time ago.

Francie: What a treasure, Evan. You have to dig that up.

Evan: It’s on a cassette. That was how it was recorded. I’ll get it somehow preserved. So I acted in Dog People. There was also Alligator Girls Go to College. That was by Gary Indiana. There was Curse of the Dog People. Did I play Flood? Was that my name? Harvey was in it this well. Harvey was my partner at the time. He moved to California and became a theater critic.

Gary put on plays. Alan Frame directed these things based on David Wojnarowicz. David was only vaguely part of The Bar though. David was around Peter Hujar. The thing is that Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Steve Brown were only vaguely there. Steve was a film editor and filmmaker. Paul Thek went to The Bar.

Francie: This was before I became part of anything.

Evan: Did one feed the other--The Bar and Bill’s studio? I guess so.

Francie: Absolutely, I think what happens, I’m not sure of this, but there were a lot of theater people from Fourth Street, La Mama. They would go to The Bar after the theater. People would mingle. Bill had his coterie.

Evan: Then there is also of course the Pyramid Club. I did a show in the Pyramid Club that was written and directed by Peter Littlefield. Punch for Boys, it was called. That was with Joey Voitjko, and John Kelly played Judy. John Kelly is still performing at Joe’s Pub quite often. He’s well-known for doing a Joni Mitchell evening. I guess it’s not an imitation or an impersonation. It’s more of a channeling. He’s done things at Next Wave. He was around at The Bar. He also performed in this thing at the Pyramid Club. Also Terry Robinson was in it, I think. It’s hard to remember. Bill Rice was in it. We ended up doing an extra two weeks, and Bill left and Harvey took over for Bill. That’s my memory. It’s a long time ago. Bill played the judge and death; because it was a Punch and Judy show. I guess that The Bar and Bill Rice’s studio really fed off each other.

Francie: It’s like this nexus of networks.

Evan: I know that basically every night after dinner, you’d go over to The Bar. It was kind of every night. It was 35 or 38 years ago. Is it possible that I’m that old?

Francie: It’s possible. Time has flown by Evan. So how did that affect you? What were you doing? Tell me about your work.

Evan: At the time and for many years later I was working in a group called the Lounge Lizards, of course. I was writing music on my own. I wrote music for Dog People, as I mentioned. I wrote music for a reading that Larry Mitchell was doing for his book, The Terminal Bar. I wrote up a piece of music for Larry that I call the Terminal Two Step. I didn’t understand at that time that what I had actually written was something called a tarantella. (Evan describes the beat with tapping and singing). That’s on Selling Water, renamed as Tarantella. So originally I played it on solo piano and I played it for Larry to play behind a reading from The Terminal Bar. I remember trying to write it down, thinking this is crazy,

(Evan describes the beats in a way that cannot be transcribed with voice, tapping and clapping). You can’t write ‘swing.’ I can’t keep saying with every note that it’s a triplet, a triplet. I didn’t know there was a time signature called a 12/8. So I called it the Terminal Two Step for The Terminal Bar.

Harvey Perr and I were a couple and we would go to The Bar every night. That was sort of what you did. It was where you socialized.

Do I have specific recollections of that time? No, it’s all a blur (laughter). I remember one New Year’s Eve. I had a gig. The Bar was going to be open all night. The bartender, Bobby, was on. He was a very sweet man. (One early AIDS death.) I went in there and there were three or four people sitting there. I had one drink. There was someone there named Bill Duffy. He was an actor with a red beard who used to hang out there. He was sitting there, hitting the lights over the bar, so that they were swinging back and forth. Bobby wasn’t doing anything about it. I had one drink and I said, “Happy New Year Bobby. I’m going to go.” He said, (laughter) “Please don’t go!”

I remember sitting with Bill at the Bar one night and Cecil Taylor came in and sat down at the bar. I remember thinking, how funny. Cecil Taylor could walk into any gay bar anywhere in the world and not be recognized, except for this one bar. Here Cecil walks in and half the people in the room know who he is. It’s very funny. Freddie Mercury, the singer from Queen, hung out there for a little while too. I didn’t realize how fucking amazing Queen was at the time. I was too stuck up in jazz to realize how truly amazing Queen was.

Francie: It seems like a lot of amazing people came and went.

Evan: Yes, Keith Herring was there. David Armstrong was there. The photographer who was friendly for many years with Nan Goldin. I can’t speak to whether or not they are still friendly. There was the crowd at The Bar--Rick Morrison, Bill Rice and Terry Robinson. I also started hanging out with David Armstrong, who I really met there. I hung out with him, Daniel Sachs and Steve Brown. Then I became a little divided between the old friends who I’d always hung out with at The Bar, and this new fancy crowd. (laughter)

Francie: Oh dear. How disloyal!

Evan: They also went to the Mudd Club at times. We were hipsters.

Francie: That was important.

Evan: Was it? I guess it seemed it at the time.

Francie: There was so much talent around. People were exciting. One might flit from one flower to another.

Evan: Yes, The Bar did really feel like a hotbed. It really did. It’s like, ‘Oh I’ve come to New York and now I have somewhere that I hang out!’ It’s stupid, like that television show, Cheers, where ‘everyone knows your name’; because it’s New York City and its the Lower East Side and it felt important.

Francie: Obviously, you were drawn to people you met there. What was it about this community?

Evan: I suppose it was the first time that I was really out. Thinking back, it’s been so many years now. But for me it was the first time that I was in amongst people who simply accepted me for who I was. What an enormous thing that is. It wasn’t all that many years before when I had felt, ‘Well, I guess I’ll live in an alley.’ You just feel like, ‘I guess I’m anathema and cannot be seen in proper society.’ Then here was this place. So it was a big deal. Although, I never slept with any of them (laughter).

Francie: You are smiling. I don’t know if you are kidding.

Evan: No, I never slept with any of them.

Francie: So that speaks to another thing. That it wasn’t all about sex.

Evan: It wasn’t all about sex? I don’t know how much the other people all slept with each other. But I didn’t sleep with any of them.

Francie: Well some gay bars are all about cruising. That’s all that I’m saying.

Evan: No, The Bar was not about cruising at all. Even at the time I was interested in men who are my age now. I was interested in men who were 45 or 55 years old. There were not a lot of people at The Bar that were that age.

Francie: It was a younger set. But there were a few older people.

Evan: There were a few people who were older but it was the younger set mainly. It always felt to me like it was one thing to be gay. And another to be interested in people who are so opposite the norm of what you’re supposed to want: ‘Gosh, how much coming out do I have to do?’ It’s one of the great reliefs of my having reached adulthood, having reached 58 years old now. Now I’m attracted to people who are my own age. It’s a glorious thing.

Francie: It’s perfect. Well you’ve stayed steady to your vision

Evan: Yes. I don’t think The Bar was a particularly cruisey bar.

Francie: It’s not that people didn’t cruise each other, but that wasn’t the whole point.

Evan: You know what would be interesting would be to look online and to look at archives of gay publications from the 80’s to see how The Bar was described. It would probably say ‘punky neighborhood bar.’ Then of course The Saint came along. I remember that David Armstrong and I, as a joke, started a group called Fags Against Fags, when The Saint opened (laughter). Then we formed a splinter group. (It’s silly with me sitting here with this full beard now.) We started a group called, Fags Against Facial Hair (laughter). It was the clone years! Gay men had trimmed beards and aviator sunglasses and hair that was an inch long. This was what everyone had. You did not see that look at The Bar at all.

Francie: There were bars where you had to have a certain look to even go into them and this was not that.

Evan: No, The Bar was not that at all. Look when my mother came back from England to visit, she came in with me to The Bar every night. I remember Larry. He was the manager. He has strawberry blond hair. He was pouring a drink for my mother and he didn’t quite fill it all the way up. I mentioned it and he said to me, “That’s the way the lady likes it.” I thought I guess he knows my mother’s taste in booze more than I do, which was apparently true. It was very funny.

It was very open. Couldn’t anyone walk in there at any time? There were a couple of obnoxious straight people who were there. One or two who hung on even after it became something else. They were pool players, you know, that kind of thing. Now it’s called The Queen Vic. What the hell is that?

Francie: What we’re talking about is a ghost of the past.

Evan: There was the story that they shot some of Cruising in there, the Al Pacino movie. Of course the community was very down on the movie and they would try to stop it being filmed. Since it’s an illegal act, I won’t mention his name; but someone that we knew at the time went there early in the morning and simply filled the locks with epoxy. They were going to shoot it at six in the morning or something. They were looking for gay bars to shoot in.

In some ways it was the tail end of hippiedom, the end of the polymorphous perverse hippie days.

Francie: Yes, you’re right. There was this boundarilessness, a kind of creative, anything goes mindset.

Evan: I think in some ways it was a hangover from the late 70s.

Francie: It’s interesting, Evan. I think you have a point. That was still happening. At some point, it couldn’t go on.

Evan: Of course, AIDS is the thing. You look at the number of deaths related to it.

Francie: And it was a sexually transmitted disease. We were all having a sexual free-for-all. I was.

Evan: Some of it has to do with my own personal sexual preferences, which kept me safer than other people.

Francie: But all of us are glad to be alive.

Evan: And the other thing is that there was a lot of drugs around. There were a lot of people using intravenous drugs. To be gay and intravenous drug user in the late 70’s! I mean you’re playing Russian Roulette with more than one bullet in the chamber.

David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, Ethel Eichelberger were friends who were great talents who died from HIV. My feeling is that I kind of stopped going to The Bar. Why? (Speaking to myself) What did I do when I stopped? Well, my relationship with Harvey ended because I met someone else; but I wasn’t living with him yet. Then I moved out of the neighborhood. Just like The Masque of the Red Death. You run away from it. You bar the door against the plague, but it’s already in the house. It was just too horrible. People were just dying and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Francie: It was dangerous, Evan.

Evan: But it was all so like (to quote Ethyl Eichelberger) “Halston, make a stronger perfume. Darken the windows of my limousine. I don’t want to see.” It was death all around you. At that time, of course, they couldn’t even tell you if you had it or not. The only proof of having it was symptoms. Then finally they got white blood cell counts. They would do white blood cell counts. So you were assumed to have HIV. They didn’t call it HIV, because we didn’t have a name for it. What, “gay cancer?” I remember around the time of Three Mile Island, well before HIV; and Larry said something like, “No, it’s not going to be like an explosion and were all going to die. It’s going to take 20 years or longer and we’ll all die of some horrible disease.”

Francie: Did he say that? That man really saw things. I’m still trying to catch up to him.

Evan: Yes, it was very prescient of him. But we’re still here! Its 20 years ago now that I ran into a guy named David Worley who used to hang out at The Bar. Probably not someone you knew. He used to hang out at The Bar sometimes; and I ran into him in the street in Union Square. (For the tape recorder, I’m showing a surprised look on my face and pointing.) My look said to him, ‘You’re alive?’

Actually, now I remember. I moved to E. 5th St. and I started hanging out at basically a straight bar. The community was decimated. So many of the leading lights of it were gone. The center was taken out.

Francie: I remember going to visit Peter Hujar iin the hospital and David Wojnarowicz at bedside. I guess for me at first there was a lot of pain and the normal angst of that age; but there was also an unfettered license to do anything. Then all of a sudden people were getting sick. It just seemed to change the equation.

Evan: Remember, it was the summer and we didn’t even know why it was happening. “Oh it was poppers. It’s caused by poppers,” they said. That was one of the early theories--not, that it’s a sexually transmitted disease caused by the sharing of semen.

Francie: Were you close to anyone who died from HIV.

Evan: Yeah. The names I already mentioned. Jim didn’t die of HIV but Jim did have HIV. He got the pneumonia. So there we were. We’d moved out of the neighborhood. We’d closed the door against the plague and the plague was in the house. But that was a little later. Jim was one of the very first people on Merck’s first antiretroviral trial. He was patient #69 or something. Of course, he bounced back in a lot of ways very quickly. He died of a heart attack. Now this was 15 years later or something. Things have changed enormously from those days. Then no one even knew how long between infection and symptoms.

Francie: Well that changed so dramatically over time.

Evan: But in the beginning you had no idea. John Endy died of AIDS. Steve Brown died of AIDS. Keith Davis too. I remember that Keith was friendly with David Wojnarowicz. He was a graphic designer. And there was David Wojnarowicz of course and Peter Hujar. David is one of the ones who really changed things. Of course David’s art was so angry.

Francie: Thank heaven for David and his art. He turned it around as much as he could.

Evan: David is a key figure. I guess there’s a biography of him now. There’s an actual biography that I have not read. I don’t think I’m mentioned in it.

Francie: We should write the editor (laughter).

Evan: I met the woman who wrote it very briefly. She had just finished it and she was toying with the idea of interviewing me but I think it was like, ‘God no. I’m finished.’ It’s an odd feeling that I didn’t quite enter the stream of history in certain ways.

Francie: Well, it depends on who these people talk to. Think about it. In one person’s life, how many people do they interact with? Actually it could be a brief interaction and have a profound effect. Or it can be a long interaction and have little or no effect. Depending on how long I do this project, I’ve already imagined people who are mad at me because I didn’t interview them.

Evan: Well you do ask, ‘Are there other people from the community that I recommend you interview for this project?’ Well I have suggested a few people. Have you interviewed Ray Dobbins?

Francie: No I haven’t but I must interview Ray.

Evan: Ray was more political. He was a stay-at-home kind of a guy. I always thought of him as being more political. I don’t know why. Although, then there is the action I mentioned before. You would have to ask him about that.

Francie: What I want to know from you is this. Did this community have any effect on your artistic development or growth?

Evan: In some ways, certainly; because when you arrive in this thing, you feel like, ‘I am now a cog in the wheel!‘ That’s generally a pejorative thing to say; but I don’t mean it as such. I mean it as, ‘I fit. Here is this community that I fit in.’ It didn’t go as far as one hoped it would have; and it didn’t really develop into a long lasting thing, because I moved away and because of HIV.’

It isn’t the case that now I’m working with whomever I had met then. I did meet the person who became my composition teacher there. He saw the Lizards play somewhere in a place called 8BC. Julius Eastman walked up to me at The Bar and said that he had seen me perform and he wanted to speak to the person who played keyboards with a group. I said, “That was me.” He said, “I would like to encourage you to write for other instruments.” So I began a rather strange tutelage under Julius Eastman. That was when I first started to learn to read and to write music.

Francie: That’s a turning point.

Evan: It was an enormous turning point for me. Julius was perfect for The Bar. The first assignment that he gave me was to take a mass by Palestrina. This is pre-Bach. It was written in what was called movable C clef. It’s different than the G clef and the F clef. You would place this thing that looks like the letter B; and you would place that center point into the two curves of the B at the place that you want to call the note C. It’s basically a viola clef. So the Palestrina masses were written in movable C clef. Julius’ first assignment for me was to take a Palestrina mass written in movable C clef. To rewrite it in G and F clef, or treble and bass clef, using a dipped pen and ink, which is a nightmare (laughter).

First of all I’m left-handed. So you get two systems down the page and you realize that the ink hasn’t dried and you have a quarter note printed on the side of your hands which you have printed all along the page. So you start again, a measure at a time and you wait, and move on, and you wait. Finally you get three quarters of the way down the page and the nib of the pen jumps and the ink splatters all over the page. I’m not even talking about a fountain pen. I’m talking about a quill.

Francie: That’s cruel!

Evan: I tell you, my charts to this day look kind of beautiful, all because of Julius. His point was that your charts should be beautiful, not only because they just should be beautiful. How nice that they are beautiful, instead of this confusing mess. But also, when you put the attention into writing these things down instead of just scribbling along, when a musician picks it up, it’s like ‘Oh I can read that without any question.’ So Julius used to hang out at The Bar. Julius is gone now, also from HIV I believe, although Julius was homeless finally. I think that he was dead for a while before people caught on that he had died. I don’t know. That’s kind of a mystery to me. Well, I left the neighborhood.

Yes. It had this enormous effect on my work, because I felt like I had found myself in a community of like-minded people, also because of influence, specific influence from some of those people. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that it ever really got to come to fruition.

Francie: What?

Evan: That community, because of HIV. I feel that it was one of the defining things in my life--that this community did not develop, that it was chopped off. We were talking about people who got married. Imagine that you’re unsure of your sexuality (especially if you are a churchgoer) and then suddenly there is this horrible disease: ‘Well, I think I’ll just put a little more concrete on top of that!’

Francie: That’s right. Find a nice girl who’s going to stay at home.

Evan: Have sex once. Have a kid. ‘I’ll jerk off after that.’ So once all that concrete gets blown off… Party!

Francie: And some people have broken out of that.

Evan: Some people, yes.

Anything else you want to ask?

Francie: Yes, I want you to talk more about this concept of how it got cut off, that community. Just expand on it a little; because I think it’s a really important point.

Evan: All right, so I’d been with Harvey. I met someone else. I left Harvey. Jim and I got together and I went, ‘Okay, we are now a couple!’ We hung out at a different bar. I’m no longer someone who goes out every night. I go out before dinner and have a cocktail. I don’t go out after dinner and party. I think it was like, ‘Alright, let’s retreat into couplehood and try to ignore the plague.’ That really is my feeling. I wasn’t aware that I was doing it at the time. But I look back at it now and that’s what I feel that I did. Then Jim and I even moved out of the neighborhood. We looked for a place to buy. I didn’t want to be in any of the neighborhoods. I didn’t want to be in the West Village or the East Village or the Upper West side. So I ended up on 30th St. and Lexington, which is kind of nowhere. It’s not Murray Hill. It’s not Gramercy.

Francie: I was thinking while you were speaking. (This is because I do art therapy.) I’m thinking about trauma. What you are describing is kind of like a response to trauma, where people get away and stay away. Something terrible happens and it’s really about avoidance and burying it, in a way.

Evan: Yes, ‘This is dying. I am running.’ I think a lot of people reacted that way. It caused people to run to their corners.

Francie: Everyone scattered to survive.

How did you survive as an artist? I know that we have this internal drive; but you no longer had the community. You had your partner. Or did you have a new community?

Evan: I was still playing with the Lounge Lizards. I started writing other music. I really started writing music then to be performed, more like concert music to be performed. I did fewer things involved with theatrical events. That’s the kind of thing that I imagine would’ve happened had the world of The Bar been able to continue. Theatrical things would’ve grown out of it. Collaborations, of a better funded nature than the plays in the backyard at Bill Rice’s studio, or the Pyramid club, or the Theater for the New City, would’ve come out of it

Francie: So there’s this organic evolution of a community that can happen in New York and it didn’t happen because of this.

Evan: Other things came along. Doesn’t it feel like the plays, Rent and Avenue Q are like the work of the twenty-year-olds who came in and stepped on where we were, when we got snuffed? I’m not all that happy with it either.

Francie: I think something changed for everybody. I think that the new generation of 20-somethings were different in a way. It seems like there was this sexual revolution that came out of this hippie thing. It was gay and it was for women. I don’t know who else was going through it; but that was our time. The twenty-somethings that came on after us had their own revolution; but I don’t think it was a sexual revolution because that was done with.

Evan: Well, and there was HIV there.

Francie: Right exactly! That would put a brake on it. That’s true. So they had their own revolution. I don’t know what it is. But I’m sure that every generation has its’ own.

Evan: It’s own curse. Honestly I never saw Rent. I never saw Avenue Q.

Francie: Obviously they don’t have the weight of a Peter Hujar or David Wojnarowicz work.

Evan: I don’t think they do. I truly lament the loss of what might’ve grown out of it. There was that Paul Thek show up at the Whitney. Paul Thek and Peter Hujar were a little older.

Francie: They certainly got decimated. I guess that’s partly what’s driving me to dig around here.

Evan: It’s something I feel quite often. Obviously it touched me in many ways. But in some ways it’s peripheral. Jim isn’t peripheral. There is this black line right through 1982 or whatever it is.

Francie: It’s like a wall that we all ran into. It crushed our heads and some of us survived and some of us didn’t.

Evan: We reacted to it in different ways. I kind of ran. It didn’t occur to me until years later that I retreated into couplehood. It didn’t occur to me for years that this is exactly what I did. I gave up the idea of being in a community of artists, to being in a couple. From then on most of my friends were straight.

Francie: Wow, so you really got outside of it.

Evan: Not all of them were straight. It wasn’t really a decision. It is what happens.

Francie: I think that’s it. There is something that was lost, Evan.

Evan: Yeah…. Yeah…. I feel it very strongly.