Volume 75, Number 16 | September 07 - 13, 2005
In defense of HOWL!: Every village needs a town fair
By Sarah Ferguson
O.K., first the disclaimers: HOWL! is an overweening hype machine and schmoozathon created to glorify the halcyon days of the East Village heyday and resuscitate the fame of artists who fear their legacies are being lost in the sauce of the neighborhoods crass bar culture.
Photo by Daniel Falgerho
Celeste Hastings dancing Butoh at the Petit Versailles garden during HOWL!
It was founded by Phil Hartman, who is horrified by chain stores moving into the nabe but owns a chain of Two Boots pizza restaurants and now seems to be fashioning himself as an East Village mayor/impresario. He says he loses his shirt on HOWL! every year, but manages to promote himself, his pizza and his swanky new restaurant and performance venue, Mo Pitkins, opened in a former furniture store on Avenue A, quite nicely thank you.
The purpose of HOWL! is to recall and revere the freewheeling counterculture that erupted here in the 60s and 70s and 80s sparked by the holy vision of Alan Ginsbergs epically transgressive poem while helping to preserve whats left of the East Villages edgy tendencies. But the festival is now sponsored by HSBC, Amex, Viacom, Mountain Dew, the luxury apartment specialists Avalon Bay who are throwing up fancy rentals on East Houston Street, and even that ostentatious celebrity-hideout Hotel Rivington i.e. the very predatory corporate culture thats eating away at our souls, or what Ginsberg termed Moloch.
All this is true, immensely contradictory and somewhat beside the point. HOWL! remains a phenomenon, an open field for artists to play off each others energies and talents. Yes, theres kvetching that not enough of the performers actually live on the L.E.S., but then who can afford it? The point is for this week, all those performance dives that got chased out of the hood by high rents have a chance to be resuscitated if only momentarily in what is in essence a weeklong stage collectively carved out of the neighborhoods streets, parks, bars, galleries and gardens, with lots of art in odd places jammed in like a sound installation in a Japanese dumpling joint or a smut reading in an Avenue C laundromat.
What amazes most, wandering this third annual festival, is the sheer industry of the event, spun out over seven days on the backs of an army of interns and volunteers who labor months to put it together.
For people like me who have lingered here too long, the event functions as a kind of high school reunion and networking bonanza, a chance to catch up with the superfreaks who crash-landed here in search of their 15 seconds of fame those who got it and those who left chastened and bitter but still resurface with a hungry gleam in their eyes (hoping no doubt to get paid, which is something that HOWL! isnt very good at doing. Note to producers: why do only the celebrity all-stars seem to get paid?)
Its a chance to remember and revel in our roots, which run deeper and mean more than we thought; a last summer nights reverie before the editors and bosses come back from the Hamptons, etc. to march us back into the work grind.
Sure the festival could do more to reach out to local artists. Theres truth in experimental composer Butch Morriss complaint that the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which has come under the rubric of HOWL!, bypasses the numerous jazz players living in the hood in favor of bigger name talents on the circuit. Why not also showcase the continuity of local artists like Matthew Shipp, John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, Charles Gayle, Anthony Coleman and Evelyn Blakey carrying on in the old stomping grounds of Parker, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus?
Its also difficult to see how promoting the legacy of the East Village will do much to curb the obliterating effects of gentrification one of HOWL!s raison detres. If the artists were pilot fish for developers back in the day, how is hyping the glories of the L.E.S. going to change that? Theres been talk of FEVA (the Federation of East Village Artists), which runs HOWL!, setting up a fund to support artists with health care, grants and studio space, but that has yet to materialize.
But to those old-timers who complain that HOWL! is a bunch of hoopla for tourists, a pastiche of greatest hits that belies the neighborhoods bohemian roots, one must ask: how vacuous would the East Village be without a HOWL! to regroup the troops and incite us all into such narcissistic, expressionist frenzy every year?
So heres some snapshots of my own bulimic tour of HOWL! happenings things I liked, among the too many I missed:
Celeste Hastingss darkly mythic and utterly mesmerizing Butoh danced amid the shrubbery of the Petit Versailles community garden on East Second Street.
Feeling Lou Reeds incredible loneliness as he read Ginsbergs lines about Tangerian bone-grindings and junk-withdrawal in Newarks bleak furnished room, like only someone who fell down that rabbit hole too many times could.
Steve Cannons play Basquiat slamming heroin glam in the course of six minutes flat.
Jazz pianist Geri Allens trilling scales sweeping over Tompkins Square, cleansing my own hung-over brain.
Downtown goddess Phoebe Legere preaching the wonders of Brownian motion and Mandelbrot sets with the help of a sneaker hooked up to a laptop generating 12-tone loops.
Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders of the Fugs singing ad jingles from the 40s and 50s, and revealing that their satiric, antiwar, anticorporate rock band once opened for Fleetwood Mac.
Listening to Laura Cantrells sultry twang as Odeon Popes sax choir screamed out notes across the park, a cacophony of bluegrass and jazz blues ringing back and forth between my ears.
Watching an artist in Art Around the Park whod painted herself into an elaborate set, like a messy bedroom of nightmarish dreams, scream at a passing tourist that she was a lot more than just an object here when he tried to snap her photo.
Hearing Howl read in a babble of foreign languages by an international chorus of poets, deftly orchestrated by Edwin Torres, followed by an actual chorus of singers (conducted by Ginsbergs longtime comrade Steve Taylor) performing the final Holy stanzas like a church hymn: The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! The bums as holy as the seraphim! Holy, holy, holy
Watching a mock George Bush shoot a bunny that a magician pulled out of a hat while the sound of jet fighters streamed from the speaker stacks, startling the audience with flashbacks to all those fighter planes zinging overhead after 9/11.
Poet Steve Dalachinsky reading with pianist Matthew Shipp amid John Ranards images of the squats on fire and the parks homeless people I once knew on a first name basis, now dead, moved on or just evaporated.
Charles Herbstreiths park installation Vacuum, which featured overstuffed vacuum bags labeled with small plaques bearing the addresses for Tompkins Square Park, CBGB, MoMA and Bloombergs townhouse.
Dancing to Yomo Toro with the Ricans from my block during the Viva CHARAS! concert the first time weve partied together since our community garden got bulldozed on East 10th.
Learning that the Parks Department is keeping local artist Thom Corns large wooden Oil Derrick as a long-term installation in one of Tompkins Squares flower beds; an oddly apropos monument given the devastation down South.