8BC. It sounds ancient, like a marker of a bygone civilization, doesn’t it? And walking into 8BC was like descending into an archeological site. You entered at street level into another world; a cavelike room with towering walls of pitted concrete, where the floor dropped away in front of you and you descended rough wood stairs to a dirt pit filled with people, the ceiling vaulting high above. The stage, also at street level, floated on the other side. Often the performers on that stage seemed to be enacting some obscure ritual; a duo cavorting in hulking masks; a towering figure with a great cloud of white hair howling a song of survival; a woman slathering gooey orange and brown slop on her naked body.
Behind the bar, which was my turf, hung an enormous painting of agonized women in Greek robes, struggling to hold up a stormy sky as wolves tore at their legs — tearful caryatids, trying to sustain a world collapsing around them. Dennis and Cornelius, 8BC’s owners, always insisted that the painting, by artist Don Herron, was just the requisite picture of a naked woman over the bar. (They didn’t have a liquor license, but they knew what was important.) The painting may have been called Civilization Teeters, but it was not a metaphor for artistic desperation as culture crumbled, not a warning vision to those of us partying amidst urban chaos. No no no. But of course we all knew that it was.
Actually, the name was literal: 8BC stood for 8th street between Avenues B and C, which even in the early 80s East Village was scary, no man’s territory. The place was one of just four inhabited buildings on an otherwise burnt out block, the entire south side of the street a grey cliff latticed with empty black windows. From the outside, the club, in an 1850’s former farmhouse next to an empty lot, with a crumbling front, fit right into that bleak streetscape. The name was carved on the wall next to the entrance, three angular hieroglyphs that formed a primitive-futurist logo etched onto a Lower East Side moment.
But inside 8BC seethed with radical, joyfully chaotic life. It was a cave sheltering a tribe committing previously unimaginable acts, absurd yet brave. A nighttime carnival celebrating the freedom that comes from living on the edge of a teetering civilization, of artmaking from the detritus of the city.
The club is hardly ever mentioned in accounts of the downtown performance and club scenes in the 80s. The names you still hear or find online are the Pyramid, PS 122 (which are still around, though vastly altered), or glamorous nightlife venues like Danceteria and Area. It’s mentioned in “La Vie Boheme” from Rent. But otherwise it’s as if 8BC has disappeared into history, like the archeological site it resembled. But more than any other venue from that brief, wild era, 8BC was precariously, uniquely of its time and place.
Dennis and Cornelius created 8BC for artist performers, gathering a gloriously motley, radical crew empowered by a place where they could try anything. Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, They Might Be Giants. Poppo, Dancenoise, Jo Andres and Liquid TV. Alien Comic, Phoebe Legere, Holly Hughes, Jeff Weiss, Kestutis Nakas, Steve [Buscemi] and Mark, Carmelita Tropicana, the Kipper Kids. John Zorn, Sonic Youth, Arto Lindsay, His Masters Voice, Mimi Goese, Butthole Surfers, John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, Frightwig. The performances at 8BC were raw, unpredictable, the people in the pit and the performers onstage united by something powerfully alive, performance transmuted into something strange and vivid and impossibly real.
I was a bartender at 8BC, part of the tiny, eclectic (even for the East Village) crew that Dennis and Cornelius gathered to run the place. John Gernand was the stage manager and caretaker of the resident rabbit. Dana and Rolf (and later Stephen Holman and Joshua Fried) ran the jerry-rigged sound and lights. Tessa Hughes-Freeland, a filmmaker, was the other bartender, and her husband Carlo McCormick (before he became a well-known art critic and editor at Paper Magazine during its most influential period) was the barback. On the door outside was George, big enough to be security, friendly enough not to intimidate, who collected the $5 entry fee ($7 for special events, but never $10), and sold coke and speed on the side.
Oh our raggedy family. Dennis and Cornelius were our crazy gay uncles. They threw Fourth of July Pig Phests in the empty lot, where they’d roast an entire hog while whoever wanted to come by played on an absurdist artist-built miniature golf course. Sometimes Carlo would come in after spending a night on speed writing a piece for Art Forum or some other erudite publication, carrying a yellow legal pad covered in minute, precise script, (I wondered how he could write that small) then haul out crates of beer from the ‘cellar’ under the stairs. Tessa had Wednesday and Saturday nights, I had Thursdays and Fridays. For the year and a half that I worked there, those two nights were enough to live on.
We were all in the neighborhood. I walked to work from my apartment 7 blocks away, on Avenue B just above Houston St., where I paid $300 a month for a one-bedroom. Tessa and Carlo were a few blocks south of me. Dana was in a squat on 8th St. We were there not just because it was cheap, but because cheap meant we only had to work a few days (or nights) a week and had the rest of our lives to create or go out. Or launch something new.
8BC could only have happened in this place where cheap desolation created possibility. Cornelius had painted scenery for Broadway shows, dreaming of being a producer. He’d done one show that lost money when he saw an ad for a building for sale for $22,500. He talked the owners down to $20,000, then wrote a check for the $350 he had in the bank. He had 30 days to come up with the rest when a family friend, a gay priest who’d left the church, lent him the money. When Cornelius moved in, there was no plumbing, electricity or windows. He and a roommate stayed warm that first winter by burning the wood, including the rotten floor beams on the ground floor (thus the cave-like two-story-high club) in an oil drum. He bartended and worked as a bouncer in brothels while he made the place habitable, built the bar, the booth, the stairs, hung clip lights, ran wires. He first hired Dana, conveniently squatting in a building across the street, to gut and hammer and saw, then made him our first sound and lighting guy. Herron painted Civilization Teeters in exchange for Cornelius tiling his bathroom. Cornelius’s sister, who worked for a fabric designer uptown, gave them an enormous piece of ivory silk, and they wheeled a sewing machine along the material to sew a grand rippling stage curtain.
Dennis had been a cook with a California traveling hippie circus that included the Flying Karamazov Brothers. He and Cornelius hooked up one day when Dennis was giving away martinis in Tompkins Square Park. Cornelius had been going out with the poet John Ashbery, but opted for a lover on the margins. The sex was spectacular, and who else would share his living-in-the-ruins dream? Dennis moved into the 8BC space when he got evicted from one of the three other occupied buildings on the block. Location was fate. People connected because they lived in that semi-abandoned neighborhood, took chances because they could and because there were other people who’d join them. What would have happened if Dennis hadn’t been living on that block, hadn’t been someone who thought serving martinis in a junkie-filled park was a good way to spend his day?
They opened on Halloween, 1983, with a ridiculous theatrical extravaganza that included the Etruscan Dildo Dancers (staged by Uzi Parnes, who became a good friend and later opened Chandalier, a sister performance club in his living room on Avenue C.) Before the party started, Dennis and Cornelius were so tired they fell asleep in the bathtub.
While all sorts of artists performed at 8BC in the two years it was open, over time a smaller group became regulars who defined a personality for the club: raggedly homemade, raucous, intense, physical, ironic, surreal, daring their own and the audience’s tolerance.
They Might Be Giants, the duo who became 90’s indie darlings, made the big clunky paper mache Ronald Reagan heads they put on over their own to prance around the stage for Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head, one of their most beloved songs. Tom Murrin, the Alien Comic, performed monthly Full Moon shows draped in a glittery robe and a table full of toys and junk picked off the street. The son of a Hollywood socialite, Tom had dated Ava Gardner. Somehow he ended up making surreal toy-trash ritual performances on the Lower East Side. For the Carnegie Hall Show, Kestutis Nakas, another regular, flew overhead dropping dollar bills onto the audience below. Dancenoise, the fierce sisterly duo of Lucy Sexton and Annie Iobst in combat boots and fishnets, woman-handling blow-up dolls and lobbing fake blood. The improvisational art-noise-no wave music likes of John Zorn and Elliot Sharpe, the laconic, chaotic cool of the Lounge Lizards. Jo Andres’ Liquid TV, a low-tech dance and multimedia show combining dancers, film, and luminescent paint on fabric; Jo’s boyfriend was Steve Buscemi, then of deadpan comedy/performance duo Steve and Mark, who were also semi-regulars.
8BC was a crucial venue for Ethyl Eichelberger, whom Dennis and Cornelius adored and treated like a visionary, showcasing her more ambitious, theatrical ideas that were not quite at home at the Pyramid Club. 8BC became a place where Ethyl developed her wildly imagined characters, her reinvented versions of tragic Greek figures like Medea and Clytemnestra, spiraling her classical theatre training into something absurd and profound. Her characters hysterically proclaimed love, betrayal and death, even as they mocked themselves and their mythic grandeur. “We are women who survive,” Ethyl would howl from that high stage, sawing on her accordion, interrupting herself to comment, veering in and out of ancient theatre and self-conscious satire.
There was Karen Finley, a performance priestess exorcising psycho-sexual-social demons of incest and abuse, generations of rage erupting in nightmare monologues that conjured unspeakable, invisible but all too real acts of rape and abusive sexual power, smearing her naked body with, yes, canned yams and, yes, chocolate syrup. Karen’s performances were a kind of psychological shock ritual: we’d watch her, dumbfounded at her raw daring, then cheer as she exploded with demons and sloppy mess, releasing her own and the zeitgeist’s rage in an exhilarating frenzy.
The artists who were integral to 8BC, for all their radical, out-there ideas, had a kind of innocent practicality, which grew out of their total focus on doing whatever they had to to stage their work and turn their ideas into reality. No one had any money. Everyone had to scrounge up costumes, props, and whatever else they needed however they could. The makeshift look and feel of the performances, the earnest lets-put-on-a-show atmosphere, were part of the 8BC aesthetic. Sometimes the performances just looked threadbare and a little silly. But often enough, the performer burned through the visible seams to an idea so strange and passionately delivered that it lifted you and them from trashy reality to something transcendent. A moment that was all the more startling because it rose out of something so grottily real. You were there. You felt it happen.
“To me it was about the interaction between audience and performer,” Cornelius tells me now. “The audience gave energy, the performer transposed transfigured transformed that energy into something they gave back to the audience who would give it back. It was that loop. To me that was always what was most exciting about live performance. The stuff we were doing was cheap. Also nothing was refined, it was rough around the edges rough everywhere. But that was part of the excitement. You were there while something was being created. You were part of the creative process.”
Once Ethyl and Phoebe Legere staged a show called Moulin Rage or Two Loose Women. Another 8BC regular; Phoebe was conventionally beautiful, tall, slim, and blonde, with a gorgeous voice and a demented streak, who also played the accordion. She was like a female version of Ethyl. “Two drag queens with accordions” Cornelius called them. One of the songs in Moulin Rage contained the line “my love for you is like Zeus for Danae with golden showers.” Singing it one night, Phoebe was so possessed by the moment she pissed off the stage. Which completely alienated the major label rep who’d come to hear her. That was the kind of thing that could happen at 8BC.
Dennis and Cornelius adored artists. They’d opened 8BC not to be the new cool place, but to showcase performers doing something new. Everything else: the music, the DJ, having the right crowd, was secondary. The bar was a means to an end, the way they made money to support themselves and the productions. Though an irony hovered over the performances and the club itself, an awareness of how threadbare and odd it all was, the spirit of 8BC was, at heart, sincere. We will keep doing this, we will keep letting the artists try whatever they want, and even if much of it is a mess, if much of it fails, some of it will be glorious. And our ongoing effort, in its radical, ridiculous grandeur, is glorious in and of itself. More fun and more real, in its surreal way, than anything else we could do.
At first they had a hard time getting performers, because the club was past Avenue B, then the boundary of the known world. When Cornelius asked Club 57 and Pyramid star Ann Magnuson to do a show, she said it was too far east. (She lived on Avenue A.) Plus, until the club built a following, Dennis and Cornelius were eccentric outsiders even in a village of outsiders, without punk or nightclub cool. One of the things that helped persuade artists to venture east to 8BC was the majestic size of the stage, which was much bigger than the tiny stages at the Pyramid or King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut or Darinka or Chandalier, the other hybrid performance clubs east of First Avenue. (8BC’s stage also featured a resident rabbit, which scattered peanut sized poops and occasionally appeared during performances, hopping around as a band raged on guitar or Ethyl gesticulated, interrupting herself to shriek “There’s that rabbit! Oh, I hate that fucking rabbit! John!” I don’t know how it endured the noise.)
The stage was key in attracting Ethyl, whom Cornelius had seen while bartending at a club called SNAFU, and thought was brilliant. As soon as he opened 8BC, he began trying to lure her over to what was still the scary frontier of the East Village. Of course, it rained the day she was finally able to come by, which, since two streams ran underneath the building, always turned the floor to mud. Cornelius told her the place was a mess and begged her to come another time, but Ethyl insisted. Cornelius watched with a sense of dread as her towering, determined figure came trundling down the block, dragging the upright shopping cart she used to haul her costumes and props, her worlds and personas. He was terrified she would leave in disgust. But Ethyl looked straight past the swampy floor to a stage that was finally big enough for her imagination, framed by that magnificent ivory silk curtain. Ethyl became one of 8BC’s most beloved and revered performers. She premiered her Leer there, transposing Shakespeare’s tragedy to the Ozarks and playing all three primary parts: King Lear with a white Southern suit and accent, Cordelia as a white skirt on a wire hanger, and the Fool as a hand puppet.
Dennis and Cornelius lived upstairs, of course. They lived their aesthetic, a gypsy enjoy-it-now decadence, self-aware, sophisticated, deliberately decaying and careless. Dennis turned his hippie circus cooking skills to concocting elaborate meals for friends, consumed with multiple bottles of wine. The décor was luxurious trash: a tarnished chandelier, elaborate tarnished candelabra caked in melted wax flowing onto the winestained tablecloth. On the third floor up top, their bed hung on chains from the ceiling, a trunk of sex toys at the foot. The walls filled up with paintings and artwork from a circle of artist friends who formed around them: gallerist Gracie Manson (she and her gallery named for the NY mayor’s residence were pillars of the East Village art scene), curator/artist/ personality Sur Rodney Sur, Mark Abramson and Keiko Bonk of the band His Master’s Voice (Keiko later went home to Hawaii and co-founded the Green Party there); artists like Rhonda Zwillinger (who painted the club’s bathrooms), Judy Glantzman, Marilyn Mintner and Christof Kohlhofer. Ethyl would cut Cornelius’s hair (what couldn’t she do?) and take home the leftovers.
Soon after I started bartending, they added Wednesday afternoons bookkeeping and scheduling soundchecks to my job. Sometimes I’d come in to find platters covered in leftover food from an indulgent late night dinner scattered on the kitchen counters. Dennis might stumble down from their bedroom on the top floor, tear off a chunk of meat from the carcass of a roast as he wandered over to the espresso machine — a major luxury item — muttering ‘coffee’ and waving his hands. Sometimes he’d be naked, and I’d yell “Dennis!” at him, and he’d mutter “oh, alright” and put on an oversized striped bathrobe. Everything was messy, overdone, falling apart, indulged, glorious.
Dennis and Cornelius didn’t abide by conventional ideas of how to live any more than the artists at 8BC followed conventional structure or aesthetic. Instead, they celebrated the exhilaration of inventing from mess and decay and chaos, the possibilities of not trying to control or be perfect. But they did it with a sense of humor and irony that made the scene they created acceptable to a cynical, self-aware circle. And because they welcomed artists who wanted to try new things, who had to make work without money or organizations to support them (“They’ll never give a grant to a drag queen,” Ethyl once told someone from the conventional arts world trying to persuade her to apply for one), they gave confidence to those artists. They let artists be ridiculous and extreme until they figured out what they were doing.
Why they hired me is a mystery. I never asked, and now Cornelius, who’s still a close friend, can’t remember how they found me. I do remember meeting them at Limelight one night, standing on a balcony, looking giddy and pleased with themselves, as they told me they were opening a club. I didn’t go, however. But a few months later, as I was being laid off from my ‘office’ job at the Pyramid, afraid I’d have to go back to waitressing, they called and hired me. I had never bartended before. Was it the way I looked? Was it because I was part of the Pyramid, already a thriving mix of drag, performance and music? Because I was both a dancer/performer and a club denizen, at home in PS 122 and Danceteria? To be a bartender at a club was a big deal. Not only did you make more money than almost any other job in a club (except for the DJ), but you were central to the club’s style and identity. Particularly at a place as small as 8BC.
Right before I started, Joey, a kid with an impressive Mohawk who was one of the Pyramid’s bartenders, gave me a one night tutorial in basic drinkmaking: vodka and cranberry/orange/tonic/grapefruit, martinis, margaritas. Hardly anything with more than two ingredients. The closest we got to a craft cocktail was a Long Island Iced Tea, and only bridge-and-tunnel or uptown cretins (unlikely to show up, unworthy of consideration if they did) ordered those. Still, my hands shook as I made the drinks. Could I do this?
As it turned out, my biggest adjustment to bartending was realizing that doing everything with my right hand was far too slow. I got impatient with myself, and of course anyone waiting for a drink was even more impatient. Speed equaled tips paid for rent, dance class, and possibly (so important) new shoes. So I forced myself to grab and pour and garnish with both hands simultaneously, vodka and tequila, cranberry and orange juice, lime and cherry. At first this gave me the oddest sensation. I had to consciously coordinate both hands, thinking about how to execute each action before and as I did it, my mind observing and directing my body. For a little while I felt hugely awkward. Then something clicked and ambidexterity became natural.
This sounds like a tiny achievement. But it was essential to becoming competent, then confident, then feeling like I ruled the place.
My Wednesday afternoon responsibilities were keeping track of liquor and bar supplies, and scheduling sound checks and rehearsals. Why did nightclub owners ask me to work in offices? “You showed up on time, and you weren’t high,” Cornelius says now. “Of course you were hired.” I sat at a tiny desk in their living room, writing in a giant accounting binder how many bottles of vodka and tequila we’d gone through. We got our liquor from Cornelius’s friend Stewart, a Maori from New Zealand whom Cornelius had met through Ashbery. Stewart worked at the United Nations, where one of his jobs was ordering liquor at a discount that made it cheaper than wholesale. This meant our well liquor was top shelf; with Stoli and Cuervo in the transparent well bottles that usually held throat-scraping rotgut. We even had some luxury stuff: Framboise, Calvados, good cognac, some very expensive pear brandy with a real pear in the bottle. Hardly anyone drank it except for Dennis and Cornelius, at the end of the night.
After taking care of the bar supplies, I’d call that week’s artists and bands to give them their rehearsal or sound check times, find out what they needed in the way of equipment, props, sound. Since most of the artists lived in the neighborhood, sometimes people would come by and yell up from the street, and I’d stick my head out the window and yell back. At some point Dennis would bring me a cappuccino from the espresso machine from which he pumped out vast quantities of coffee.
Cornelius was my age, and Dennis only a few years older, but they were like a pair of crazy, reassuring uncles to me and all of us. When Poppo staged Eternal Performance at 8BC, with eight women, including me, their apartment was our dressing room. After the show, after the ritual on a fog-filled stage, after our naked gold-painted dance in the empty lot and on the roof in the cold night air under the full moon, we retreated upstairs to clean up. We screamed and squealed, giddy at what we’d done, taking turns in the shower, running around half and fully naked, while Dennis and Cornelius handed out towels and grinned. “One of my dreams as a producer was to have a house full of naked women,” Cornelius said happily. He didn’t want to sleep with any of us, of course; he was just glorying in satirizing a show biz cliché even as he lived it.
Strange that I spent so many nights behind the bar at 8BC and remember so few individual performances. Mostly what I remember is being submerged in a swirl of chaos and energy, in the dark pit of the space, the light of the stage and the performers high above on my right, Dana peering down from the booth overhead on my left, a surging wall of people rising up in front of me. Some of the bands, like Butthole Surfers, from Texas, or Sonic Youth, were so loud that I felt as if I was inside a giant machine, immersed in an almost unbearable cloud of noise. The hearing in my right ear, the one closest to the stage, has been worse than the left ever since.
The world shrank to the narrow space behind my bar, the racks of liquor bottles and the cooler of beer, the glasses and soda gun, the faces that loomed up in front of me and disappeared into the darkness. I’d be sucked into the dance of grabbing and mixing and pouring, counting cash and making change, remembering faces and calculating who’d tip, who should be offered a free round — a performer or gallery owner or Alphabet City personage might get one the first time, but an outsider would have to buy several rounds of drinks and tip generously before I’d decide they deserved notice.
For a while Van Halen singer David Lee Roth came a lot; he told Cornelius that he liked being someplace edgy where no one recognized him, or would have cared if they did. I certainly didn’t care — pop hair metal bands, ugh. Why wasn’t he Lou Reed? Though my barback (a kid who joined us later), a more conventional rock and roll lover, almost choked the first time Roth materialized, rushing to serve him while I rolled my eyes. Hardly anyone from my more glamorous nightlife circle, the one centered at Danceteria and Area, came to 8BC. Once my friend Martin Burgoyne, Madonna’s roommate, thrilled me by sitting at my bar all night. I made him free margaritas, with fresh limes instead of bottled Rose’s Lime Juice, Courvoisier instead of Triple Sec, proud to be his tender maternal drinkmaker.
Time disappeared in a blur of movement and noise, a caterwauling Ethyl, a ravening Karen, the luminous glow of Jo Andres, They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell (the skinny one) and John Flansburgh (with the big black horn-rimmed glasses) capering and honking, all looming at the upper edge of my field of vision. I’d be lifted up by the chaos of the room, the crowd, the action onstage, the sloshing emotions. And then deposited, the energy draining like floodwater, as the room became a small dark space again, the walls reappeared, the stage emptied (except for the rabbit.) Leaving me, Dennis, Cornelius, Carlo, John, Dana in the empty cauldron, washing the glasses, trashing the bottles, exhaling, until the next night.
Of course it couldn’t last. Nothing that crazy and exposed could last. 8BC got an astonishing amount of press; the club was in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Vogue, People, the East Village Eye. One week it was in both Town and Country and Screw magazines. The city bureaucracy was bound to notice. Cornelius never got a liquor license or a certificate of occupancy; though he said he was working towards both. By the mid-80’s, the frenzy of attention to the East Village that 8BC had done so much to arouse was attracting tourists and developers. The burned out buildings were being filled in. Gentrification was beginning. There was no way 8BC could continue its outlaw carnival once people began buying and renovating and charging real rent.
They closed in late October 1985, a week short of their second anniversary. Cornelius walked me home at the end of the night, which he had never done before, wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket and new wave dark sunglasses, which I’d never seen him wear before. It felt wrong, as if he was trying to be a new kind of rebel that he wasn’t. I felt like he wanted some acknowledgement of the momentousness of this moment, the end of an extraordinary chapter in our lives. But I didn’t know what to say.
This was almost a year and a half before I left New York. But although that’s a big chunk of the nearly seven years I lived in the city, 8BC’s closing marked the end of an era to me. Things became more difficult after that. My village was invaded. The neighborhood family of insiders was diluted. The clubs at the center of the nightlife scene became huge — the Palladium, Limelight, the Tunnel — and so they were necessarily full of people who weren’t part of downtown, who weren’t even part of the uptown society and pop celebrity we’d welcomed as tribute to and affirmation of our hipness.
Dennis and Cornelius were briefly hired to program 4D, a giant club opening in midtown, which had been Visage, a cheesy disco palace. Loyally, they brought me along to do god knows what. We were there for a few weeks before opening weekend, for which they presented many of their 8BC favorites. We lasted one more weekend after that. The radically carefree atmosphere that was so exuberantly real at 8BC dissipated like smoke outside the shelter of those crumbling streets, the East Village family, and suddenly seemed raggedy and forced and a little ridiculous. Neither the club owners nor the uptown crowd got it. People from downtown drifted through, felt the artificiality, and left. There weren’t enough of us to animate a place that big.
I saw Jean-Michel Basquiat on one of the few nights I worked there. When I asked him what he thought, he said it was ugly, then looked embarrassed when I told him that I worked there. He apologized — for saying it was ugly, or because he was sorry I was working there? I found his apology surprising, and oddly moving. Anyways, he was right — the place was ugly, and wrong.
Once the real world arrived, our teetering outsider civilization collapsed.