Club Posters & Fliers


My face was the canvas I now painted as a performer in the clubs and on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Bow Wow Wow, Nina Hagen, The Buzzcocks, Bowie’s Heroes and the voice of Maria Callas were the sounds that filled my ears as the journal got written, the night anticipated, with or without a scheduled gig. The Limbo Lounge, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Club 57, The Mudd Club, Danceteria, The Anvil. Even if on a given night I was a mere reveler, my presence at the clubs provided me with the “deadline fix” as this spectator became a dramatic part of that equation: the Theater of Tribe.

            Rent remained a constant problem, rolling around as dreaded, making for some pretty hairy scrambles. Luxury items like health insurance and dental care were neglected altogether. Cheap Polish food went down my throat. Ideas may have been simmering for months or even years, but active work on my five- to ten-minute performances often began just a few days before. Discarded treasures found in the trash often inspired the next show.

            I was hanging out at The Bar on 4th Street with artists and friends––Peter Hujar, Bluelips, Robert Mapplethorpe, Salome, Bill Rice, Gary Indiana, David Wojnarowicz. With other friends, I’d drink beer, get up in costume, sketch portraits, talk about travel to foreign cities, compare notes, report on other scenes. Tanya, Frederick, Baronessa, J.B., Mark, Rolf, Horst. It was very Berlin-centric in those days. Very sexy and gritty. Like the East Village equivalent to the Weimar glamour thing.

            One night in 1981, this guy Bobby Bradley, who was just a kid then, told me he was managing a new club on Avenue A and would I perform something opening night? I told him I was working on The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, and he said okay. It was a huge party, just mobbed. Artists and people who loved artists and loved art. It was the birth of a ship.

            The Pyramid Club became my home, my school, my shrine. I was part of its wiring. I remember thinking to myself, Is this time special? I’d be there on a Sunday night and the club would be packed with friends dancing on the bar and people pouring in––an incredible energy. And I was like Yes, this is special. Don’t get too wasted. Savor this moment in time.

            During Happy Hour I’d make tapes in the DJ booth, which had a tape deck that enabled me to layer one track over another. This was a miracle––the ability to layer and collage different kinds of music and sound effects, to create atmospheric background music, spoken voice narration or sonic cacophony. As musical arranger for my works, I pillaged and sampled an entire world of recorded music; sound became a new palette.

            The roller-coaster ride of these soundtracks became the aural and temporal backbone buttressing and propelling my dramatic ideas into reality, inspiring movement and stagecraft, ironic farce or grand tragedy. The performances I created for the Pyramid’s tiny stage allowed me to establish a vocabulary, a style. The weekly deadlines lit a great fire under my butt, and I jumped to attention. I was manipulating an audience. I was finding my “voice” and had something to say.

            My training, my workshop, my education had begun. I threw myself (sometimes literally) into a thing I didn’t know but sensed, and I always came out the other end, unscathed, with a slowly burgeoning repertoire of 10-minute works and a following of folk who actually looked forward to my next offering, the next flier, my next plunge. I remained conscious for these journeys, and it was thrilling.

            Club performance should be in the curriculum of schools that teach performance art. It should be a required course in acting academies. There is nothing like performing for a crowd at two in the morning, a crowd that is more there to dance and drink than to watch a performance, let alone a performance by a banshee who is not doing what drag queens usually do, who is using opera and collaged classical music––what is this now? A skinny dude in a weird costume or nearly naked except for a pound of makeup, contorting his body in front of painted seamless paper backdrops, spewing stage blood, igniting flash paper.

            This was no sanctified tower of high art. It was in your face. To come up with the goods for such a crowd, you have to grab them by the throats and take them on an unanticipated journey. Focus on your destination––what are you trying to say, what are you trying to say, you better get to the point pretty quickly or they will … talk. The worst. To have a room full of people talk while you are spilling out your ideas and your guts.

            But then to see those rows of faces, absolutely rapt with attention, the contagion of their regard permeating the room and transforming the experience. Silence. A shift in the night by way of this shared encounter, this common and perfect moment, on and at this stage, in this frontier, all of us, performer and spectator together fostering and witnessing a new and different equation, a communal roar, here on Avenue A, behind these walls of oh-so-lucky and soon-to-be-torn-down sorcery.

© John Kelly 2019/2001