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Photo: Josh Appel, 2018. Taken in the Village in NY City by a vintage record store. Unsplash license.

An Even Odyssey

A history of revolt in the East Village

Al Landess was the singer for a New York-based punk band called Hammerbrain that had been around a fair number of years. When he passed away in the Spring of 2022, I remembered  when I was on the concert committee of  the NYU Program Board as a student there in the late Eighties. We produced a concert where Hammerbrain, a band called Gutterboy, and another band I can’t recall performed in the Eisner and Lubin Auditorium in NYU’s Loeb Student Center.

Al Landess squinting at the camera. Dressed in all black with a black hat and a newspaper, he appears to be walking his husky in the street.
Al Hammerbrain (Allen Godsey Landess), frontman, guitarist, and songwriter of Hammerbrain, later called Damn Kids. Image from the Landess gofundme.

Very often when I was working on a concert such as this, I stayed in the Program Board office while the show was going on upstairs—just in case someone involved with the concert needed something, had a question, had to make a phone call, etc. On the night that Hammerbrian performed, I recall a fellow Program Board member being in the office with me and remarking how Hammerbrain were nice guys—easy to work with.

So, on the Saturday in May of 2022 when there was a memorial for Landess in Tompkins Square Park, I decided to attend. I hadn’t been to Tompkins Square Park in quite a while, nor the East Village, really.

~

Tompkins Square Park is located in Manhattan’s East Village, bordered on the east and west between Avenues A and B and north and south by East 7th and East 10th Streets.

To get to Tompkins Square Park, I took a bus from where I live in Queens to 5th Avenue and, getting off in front of the New York Public Library, took the M5 to Astor Place.  I planned to walk eastward on Astor Place, then along St. Marks Place to where it intersects with Tompkins Square Park.

There was a newsstand on Astor Place. I recall walking by this newsstand late one Tuesday night circa 1990 and seeing a long line of people queued up there. I asked a guy with a dark brown beard and mustache what all these folks were waiting for.   

He replied: “We’re waiting to get The Village Voice. To look for apartments…” 

Back then, The Village Voice classifieds were where everyone in the downtown New York environs looked for places to live, jobs, significant others – or just one-night stands – via their personal ads. The classifieds were the place to go to find roommates, band mates, stuff to buy etc. As the Internet was just something techie types were whispering about back then, if you needed something, the Voice was where you looked for it.

But this Saturday, in the early afternoon, the Astor Place newsstand was closed down and shuttered, which I thought was strange.

On the north side of the newsstand was a window. In this window were three copies of a recent issue of New York Magazine. The image on the cover was a woman’s face in black and white that artist Barbara Kruger once used in a poster. In Kruger’s poster, across the woman’s face were red bands with the phrase “Your Body Is A Battleground” in white letters. (Nowadays the skater style clothing company Supreme uses this same red and white font and background in their logo.)

The cover lines on this issue of New York Magazine said: “Who are murderers in a post-Roe country?”

It was chilling to see this image on the closed newsstand. It had an air of finality to it. Earlier that week, the news was filled with talk of Roe v. Wade being overturned and abortion becoming illegal. I recently read about a woman somewhere in the U.S. being arrested for miscarrying. In a television interview in 2016 or so, when he ran for president, Donald Trump said that women who had abortions should be “punished,” which infuriated me. 

The copies of New York magazine bearing important information that were out of reach behind the glass and the newsstand not being opened for business had the disturbing aura of a slammed door, of something final – like a decision, like something gone, taken away.

I then walked east along St. Marks Place to get to Tompkins Square Park. 

~

I went to the East Village for the first time when I was 14, on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983. I had heard a radio commercial on Long Island new wave station WLIR for Trash and Vaudeville advertising the shop’s “rock and roll to wear.” I wasn’t sure where the shop was but I had a hunch that if I just walked east on 8th Street that I would find it. I did that and lo, crossing Third Avenue I saw their pink and white striped awning and there it was.

I walked into Trash and Vaudeville’s downstairs area, which had a window full of cool shoes and a red and orange neon sign that said “Trash.” A shot of this window was in the opening montage of a recent season of Saturday Night Live. Inside the shop I saw baggy white long sleeved shirts with images of black Hebrew letters and orange and yellow roses that Culture Club singer Boy George wore. There was a whole wall of rock tee shirts and a jewelry counter. I bought two pairs of plastic earrings from there and for the rest of the day I carried them in the shop’s pink and white flat paper bag like a talisman.

So many businesses I used to love are gone from St. Marks. Granted, Trash and Vaudeville is still operating in a new location on E. 7th Street, but there’s something very lacking about their formerly iconic storefront being vacant. 

St. Marks Books is long gone, the inexpensive yet satisfying quasi-healthy restaurant Dojo is no more, and the venerable record store Sounds closed up shop years ago. I had a job interview there when I was in high school. The Sounds manger gave me the gargantuan task of naming every Rolling Stones album going back to the beginning of that band’s career. I got up to Let It Bleed and choked. I didn’t get the job.

But there still seems to be a bit of surprising spontaneity on St. Marks. I love bubble tea, so I stopped into a closet-sized, sparkling clean yellow-walled bakery there. The very courteous young woman working in the place by herself was lovely and my taro bubble tea was just right. Leaving the bakery, I encountered a young Black person walking towards me, of what gender I couldn’t tell you, wearing an off-the-shoulder white tee shirt,  long cascading tousled turquoise hair hanging past their collarbone, and a cigarette dangling from their lips. They were strutting like a runway model. I was impressed by this person’s style as I headed eastward, towards the park.

In the Eighties, there was an annual drag festival in Tompkins Square Park called Wigstock. It was usually held on Labor Day. I attended it for a couple of years; it was always great fun. Wearing a wig wasn’t mandatory (as admission was free) but Wigstock was the perfect place to rock the faux hairdo of your dreams for a day. RuPaul performed at Wigstock, lip synching to Whitney Houston’s hit “(I Get) So Emotional.” Deee-Lite and their blend of ebullient club pop were a big hit with the Wigstock crowd. Onstage, the members of that group lived up to their name with a charming sense of showbizziness; Towa Tei took Polaroid pictures of the audience from the stage, Dimitry tossed daisies in our direction, and Lady Miss Kier sang of the power of love with a fierce sense of playful glamor.

As Lady Bunny, the Grande Dame of the East Village drag scene, emceed, notables such as Taboo!, The International Chrysis, Leigh Bowery, Miss Ming Vause, Lypsinka and others regaled the crowd with interpretations of recorded music in a highly camp, infectiously celebratory manner. Wigstock was like a daylong party where everyone – gay or straight or young and old – was welcome and had a good time.

But in 1988, some weeks prior to the festive fun of Wigstock in Tompkins Square Park, there was turmoil in the form of a clash between NYPD police and punk squatters who were living in campsites in the park.

In July and August of 1988, in between my sophomore and junior year at NYU, I worked at the front desk of the Weinstein dorm, from Midnight to 8am Fridays and Saturdays. 

A hand written flyer in thick black sharpie on off white paper reading: Park Rally Saturday 8/6/88 against the closing of Tompkins Park: 12AM
This our last liberty- "A public place" Can you sit in your houses and watch it disappear? Time to push back!
Flyer for the August 6, 1988 Tompkins Square Park rally. Credit: Butterick, 27 March 2019. Creative Commons 4.0.

It was a pretty chill job. I answered a phone that only rang once in a while. Sometimes I handed out spare keys to student residents of the dorm who misplaced theirs or gave the student residents their mail. Even though it was the summer, there were students living in Weinstein who were enrolled in short-term programs such as NYU’s Wall Street Seminar.

There was a large boom box on the desk and that’s where I heard free-form station WFMU for the first time and immediately became a devoted listener. I would pass the time at the desk writing in a journal I had that was covered in red, white, and blue paisley fabric. I remember writing, “When all the batteries run out/and all the milk goes sour/what will you do?”

On a Friday shortly after Midnight, the phone rang at the desk. It was Jamie, who was my boyfriend for a spell during my NYU days. We weren’t the best of matches romantically but we’re still friends to this day.

“Robin, are you ok?” he asked breathlessly.

I thought it was odd that he asked me this. “Yeah, I’m fine Jamie,” I replied.“Why? What’s going on?”

With a palpable amount of anxiety in his voice, he said: “There’s a riot going on in Tompkins Square Park. Cops beating up squatters. My god, it’s just awful…”

I was disturbed to hear this. The lobby of the Weinstein dorm was library quiet at that moment and the only other person there was the security guard who looked bored. Tompkins Square Park wasn’t in the immediate vicinity but was close enough to make me wonder if the riot would possibly reach where I was. What would I do if that happened? I felt a little scared.

At that time in the late Eighties, there was a significant number of homeless people living in Tompkins Square Park: squatters with a punk sensibility, who were rather grimy in their appearance and didn’t have “regular” places to work and live. A lot of them panhandled. There was a sense of tension between these folks and the police and, to an extent, the people living in East Village apartments who had jobs and rent to pay.

David Dinkins, who would be elected New York City mayor circa 1990, said these squatters were just extended day trippers who come to the East Village and live on the streets for the summer. He went on to say that once the fall kicks in, they “all go back to Scarsdale.” 

I wanted to comfort Jamie but I couldn’t leave Weinstein until 8AM. He lived a few blocks from the park. I could see how he would be upset.  I asked him to meet me at the Odessa diner on Avenue A for breakfast once I was done with my shift. He agreed. He sounded so rattled, I wished I could have hugged him or something but I was too far away. Odessa was right across Avenue A from Tompkins Square Park. I hoped it would still be there in the morning.

When I was done at the front desk at 8AM, I walked over to Eighth Street and headed east. There was a certain strangeness in the air. It was a warm, sunny Saturday summer morning. I was worried about what I would encounter in the vicinity of Tompkins Square. I was worried about Jamie. I guess I was worried in general.

Odessa was still standing and operating, which was good. 

Tompkins Square Park looked like something had happened to it. There was scattered trash and detritus. I didn’t see any people in the park. I vaguely recall metal barricades around the park that may have been there. I think the park was closed then.

I was glad to see Jamie. He seemed shaken but we ordered some breakfast food and coffee. Things “normalized” as we talked.

On the TV news later that day, when I was back in the Jackson Heights apartment I shared with Robert (another former boyfriend who I am still friends with), there was footage of the Tompkins Square riot, specifically video shot from an apartment window on Avenue A. This video showed an NYPD officer angrily swinging a billy club at the camera, his face scowling and his badge number covered with a black band. There was so much hostility in this image. It was shown on local NYC news broadcasts for the next week or so when they discussed what happened in Tompkins Square.

~

As I approached that same park in the East Village 34 years later in May of 2022, the atmosphere was  urban pastoral, peaceful yet edgy – a sort of realistic “la vie boheme” that the musical RENT magnified and caricatured. The chaos of the 1988 riot was far away in the past. Walking through Tompkins Square Park that day was pleasant.

34 years earlier, punk squatters in Tompkins Square Park were seen as a threat to the neighborhood. Now, years later a punk musician was being celebrated in that park.

I found the section of the park where Al Landess’s memorial was being set up. The memorial was presented by the Shadow, a punk/anarchist newspaper that had been publishing for years.

There was a setup for a band. A guitar player played the opening chords of The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on what looked like a Les Paul. There were drums set up with a sticker for The Shadow on the drumhead. A woman tested the mic by singing The Mamas and the Papas’ “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”

Opposite from the band setup was a semicircle of a black cast-iron bench. There were some people sitting there: an older couple (man and woman) wearing Hammerbrain tee shirts. The woman had red hair and wore vintage sunglasses. The man was in a motorized wheelchair.

Many of the people I saw in Tompkins Square Park that early afternoon evoked the East Village’s subversive, punk-informed lineage in terms of their comportment.

I saw men walking through the park wearing CBGB and A7 tee shirts – these being legendary punk clubs very close to Tompkins Square Park. They were long gone by that Saturday. A woman with an elaborate blue ink tattoo in the space between the outer corner of her right eye and the edge of her right temple walked through the park pushing a baby carriage. 

There were things going on typical of any park – people walking dogs, parents with children, people just sitting on benches taking in the atmosphere.

A girl in her twenties wore pink-framed sunglasses and lit up a joint as she placed a bottle of Evian water on the ground. Another young woman with blond hair pulled back into a wispy ponytail wore a black leather vest with DIE NYU SCUM written in white near the vest’s left hand pocket (I felt a bit incriminated by this, myself being an NYU alum). 

From where I sat, I saw the E. 7th Street apartment building that Joanna, a girl I was friendly with in the early ‘90s, lived in for a while. 

She and I, at different times, had both been involved with Frank, an NYU student who was very much into the punk lifestyle despite (or maybe because of?) his wealthy background. Both of our relationships with him were rocky and had ended with drama.

Frank had given Joanna a bass guitar. The back of the body was painted bright red with a black iron cross.

One day when we were in Joanna’s apartment, we painted the bass’s body white and sprinkled glitter on it. We couldn’t stop laughing as we did this.

But in May of 2022, as Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions” played over the PA in Tompkins Square Park, a rocker dude with long black hair was scat singing into the mic. 

There was a white table set up and on it was a framed picture of Al Landess. An umbrella with an aqua seascape motif was displayed near the table. Later, a girl in a pink floral satin dress was dancing to James Brown’s “The Big Payback,” as was a guy standing several feet away from her who sold bottled water out of a cooler. “I want to go to Fun City Tattoo!” she blurted. In the era of the 1988 Tompkins Square riot, tattoos were illegal. There were tattoo artists working in New York City but they operated pretty much underground. By the time of Al Landess’s memorial, getting a tattoo was as easy as getting a pedicure.

A Parks Department van pulled up and some people who were organizing that event walked over to it and talked with the driver. Even though the event was to remember a punk musician, there was no element of chaos or anarchy present at the memorial. Everything seemed dignified and orderly. After talking with the two people from the memorial, the driver nodded and slowly drove on.

A girl walked by with maraschino cherry-colored red hair, a sheer black top over a black bra and several nose piercings as she toted a Target reusable bag. She seemed to sum up what the East Village is like in the present day; how the outré accoutrements of punk are not so outrageous and secretly out of reach as they once were. Now anyone can go online and buy a pair of Doc Martens or get piercings at a Claire’s Accessories shop. There’s a Target on the corner of 14th Street and Avenue A these days and East Village denizens are not protesting its presence; rather they are buying necessary household and personal items there.

As Schizopolis, a band playing as part of the memorial, performed in Tompkins Square Park, there was an elderly man in the smallish crowd happily dancing along to the music. He periodically lifted up his shirt, exposing his belly to the spectators watching the band and blew kisses at them. He held his cane in the air and then played air guitar with it.

Author

  • Robin Eisgrau is the author of Eve Of Destruction: The Wild Life of Wendy O. Williams and has been writing about music and other cultural subjects since she was an undergrad. She has held editorial positions at Paper Magazine, Seventeen, Time Out New York, and Net Magazine, of which she was editor-in-chief.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.