Too Little, and Now Late: Mourning Glenn O’Brien

Time is an immortal enemy, of sorts.

One cannot see time passing, but it passes. It’s there. Time is unremitting, inescapable, and forever beyond our grasp.

Just three short months ago, I started writing a rather extensive essay about TV Party, a groundbreaking television show that aired on Manhattan Cable from 1978-82. That essay was to be the first installment in a series of ruminations on the golden age of Manhattan public-access.

The host and star of TV Party was Glenn O’Brien, a man who I had described in my essay as “a writer, editor, and all-around creative smarty-pants.” I went on to gush a bit about how big a fan I am of him. I proclaimed that I could easily dedicate an entire essay to Mr. O’Brien’s written works alone, but that I wanted to first introduce him to my readers through the lens of TV Party.

That was in January.

Glenn O’Brien. Photo Credit:

Shawn Mortensen, 2008.

I’ve been searching for a full-time job over the past few months, and it is a time-consuming process. Everything else in my life, including all ongoing personal projects, has fallen by the wayside. While I have continued to conduct research and accumulate data on TV Party and Glenn O’Brien’s writings and editorial work (thanks in no small part to my volunteer position at a media preservation institution), I pressed pause on the actual writing process. I kept telling myself that finding steady work was my only priority, and that everything else could wait. I figured I could finish writing later. I fantasized about reaching out to Mr. O’Brien at some point and talking with him at length about his vibrant career, but I wanted to get my own affairs in order first. I thought I could do it all “later”, whenever that was supposed to be. I told myself that it was all fine, that I had plenty of time…

glennvanityvideo

I spent Friday evening going through old microfilm and came across this image of Glenn O’Brien, in a New York Magazine article, August 1979.

This past Friday, April 7, 2017, Glenn O’Brien passed away. Time ran out.

He was 70 years old.

I discovered Glenn O’Brien precisely six years ago, in April of 2011, when I was enrolled in a lecture course entitled Art Since 1945. This was the kind of class that assigned biweekly essays as homework, and for my final paper I decided to write about Jean-Michel Basquiat. That seemed like an easy option for me, as I had been a big fan of Basquiat since pre-kindergarten, when my older sister gave me a copy of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me as a graduation gift.

I tend to go off on mental tangents whenever I do research, which is pretty much every day. I am always unearthing new topics to explore, with the current one tying nicely into the next one. April 2011 was no exception to this rule. After barreling smoothly through my essay, I stayed in the campus library, reading up on Basquiat’s short but prolific life. I quickly discovered that he had made several appearances on an obscure late-night public-access show called TV Party.

After his initial appearance on TV Party in 1979, Jean-Michel Basquiat became a regular guest, and he and Glenn O’Brien soon became friends. In 1980-81, they collaborated on the film New York Beat, which remained incomplete for years and would not see the light of day until 2000, when it was released under the title Downtown 81.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn O’Brien on the set of TV Party

I think it is important to note that both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn O’Brien were friends and collaborators of Andy Warhol. Warhol’s life and work, as well as his death in 1987, greatly influenced the trajectory of the two men’s respective careers. It has been asserted by many that Basquiat’s final spiral into heroin addiction, which led to his death in 1988 at the age of 27, was a direct result of his grief over Warhol’s sudden passing. Although he never succumbed to addiction, O’Brien would feel the effects of this loss for the next thirty years of his own life.

How do I know this?

Because he said so himself, not two months ago, on the 30th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death.

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Glenn O’Brien’s final Instagram post: a tribute to Andy Warhol

Glenn O’Brien had been the Editor and Art Director of Warhol’s Interview magazine from 1971 to 1974. By the time he embarked on TV Party in 1978, he was already well-established as a writer. What I always admired about him was his embrace of different artistic outlets; over the course of more than 45 years, Glenn O’Brien did indeed function as an “all-around creative smarty-pants.” He was a writer, editor, essayist, magazine columnist, poet, style guru, and enigmatic television host.

I miss him, and I look forward to learning, reading, and writing more about him. I had thought I had time. What I have written today must suffice for now, but is indeed too little, and now late.

Glenn O'Brien by Chester Higgins Jr.

Photo credit:

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Rest in power, Glenn O’Brien.

~GCL~

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