Volume 75, Number 16 | September 07 - 13, 2005


In defense of HOWL!: Every village needs a town fair

By Sarah Ferguson

Photo by Daniel Falgerho
Celeste Hastings dancing Butoh at the Petit Versailles garden during HOWL!
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 neighborhood’s crass bar culture.

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 Pitkin’s, 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 Ginsberg’s epically transgressive poem — while helping to “preserve” what’s left of the East Village’s “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 that’s 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 other’s energies and talents. Yes, there’s 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 neighborhood’s 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! isn’t very good at doing. Note to producers: why do only the celebrity “all-stars” seem to get paid?)

It’s a chance to remember and revel in our roots, which run deeper and mean more than we thought; a last summer night’s 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. There’s truth in experimental composer Butch Morris’s 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?

It’s 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 d’etres. 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? There’s 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 neighborhood’s 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 here’s some snapshots of my own bulimic tour of HOWL! happenings — things I liked, among the too many I missed:

—Celeste Hastings’s darkly mythic and utterly mesmerizing Butoh danced amid the shrubbery of the Petit Versailles community garden on East Second Street.

—Feeling Lou Reed’s incredible loneliness as he read Ginsberg’s lines about “Tangerian bone-grindings and junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room,” like only someone who fell down that rabbit hole too many times could.

—Steve Cannon’s play “Basquiat” slamming heroin glam in the course of six minutes flat.

—Jazz pianist Geri Allen’s 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 Cantrell’s sultry twang as Odeon Pope’s “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” who’d 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 Ginsberg’s longtime comrade Steve Taylor) performing the final “Holy” stanzas like a church hymn: “The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! The bum’s 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 Ranard’s images of the squats on fire and the park’s homeless — people I once knew on a first name basis, now dead, moved on or just evaporated.

—Charles Herbstreith’s park installation “Vacuum,” which featured overstuffed vacuum bags labeled with small plaques bearing the addresses for Tompkins Square Park, CBGB, MoMA and Bloomberg’s townhouse.

—Dancing to Yomo Toro with the Ricans from my block during the “Viva CHARAS!” concert — the first time we’ve partied together since our community garden got bulldozed on East 10th.

—Learning that the Parks Department is keeping local artist Thom Corn’s large wooden “Oil Derrick” as a long-term installation in one of Tompkins Square’s flower beds; an oddly apropos monument given the devastation down South.

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