Interview: Ann Magnuson

The actor, musician and performance artist on Club 57, Bongwater and New York’s downtown new wave scene

Few artists have had quite as varied a career as Ann Magnuson. Since pitching up in New York City in 1978, the West Virginia-born performer has worked in theater, television, music, film and performance art, building a career notable for its artistic diversity.

Magnuson first rose to prominence in her adopted city during the punk and post-punk eras. She was an integral part of the now infamous downtown scene centered on such venues as CBGB, the Mudd Club, Danceteria and neo-Dada cabaret space Club 57. It was at the latter, first as manager and then later as a regular performer, that Magnuson developed a passion for performance art and mischievous musical projects.

These included the New Wave Vaudeville Show, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Lower East Side, Pulsallama, Vulcan Death Grip and, most famously, psychedelic outfit Bongwater. She continues to record and release music, with her most recent solo album, Dream Girl, appearing in the fall of 2016.

In this excerpt from her conversation with Frosty for Red Bull Radio’s Fireside Chat, Magnuson talks in detail about Club 57, her role in the downtown scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s and some of her favorite Bongwater songs.

Austin Young

What exactly was Club 57?

Club 57 was basically a very large meeting room in the basement of the Polish National Church on 57 St. Mark’s Place, between First Avenue and Second Avenue in the East Village of New York City. I believe that the place was used by the church congregation for dances and meetings.

My Polish-American mother-in-law told me years ago when I talked about this club that they used to go to polka dances there in the ’40s. I’m like, “That is crazy. That is too coincidental.” In the late ’70s, the director was a fellow named Stanley Strychacki and he was booking it for anybody who really wanted to use it.

A punk band named the Invaders I think played there, and there was some alternative theater groups that would do Sam Shepard plays or things like that. I had been involved with something called the New Wave Vaudeville Show, which was a show that was conceived of and produced by Tom Scully and Susan Hannaford. These were people I met at CBGB. I met a lot of people either at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City when I arrived in 1978, one of them being Klaus Nomi, who I met very early on in 1978 at Max’s.

Invaders – Best Thing I Ever Did

We all got together in our scene and started to co-mingle. Tom and Susan had this idea to do a vaudeville show that was going to use new wave and punk rock talent. I was a directing intern at Ensemble Studio Theater uptown, and I was directing this rewrite, maybe sort of a butchering of a Moliére play that was updated to be in the Studio 54 era. It was meant to lampoon that stuff the way Moliére lampooned the ridiculous trends of his time.

When I met Tom at CBGB, we just started talking about the things we liked. He liked Dada, monster movies and vaudeville. I’m like, “Oh my God, I love all that stuff, too!” All the people I was meeting, we were all on the same page. We were going to CBGB because we loved Patti Smith, the Ramones and Television. By the time I got there, the band that was playing the most was the Dead Boys. I got to see incredible bands there. I got to see the Ramones and Nico.

I saw the Police do their first show. Years later I met Andy Summers and I told him, “I was at that gig.” He said, “Yeah, there was hardly anybody there.” I said, “I know. I was one of them.” I got bored with them. I went in the back and talked to our friends who ran the door. We sort of would go there every night just to see what was going on and hang out.

I became friendly with all these various people. We put on the vaudeville show, and Stanley was working at Irving Plaza, which was where the vaudeville show was held. He saw how many people had come to that show and he tapped Tom to be the manager of the small club on 57 St. Mark’s Place. Tom wasn’t interested. My memory is he wasn’t interested in being the manager, but he wanted to show movies there, so him and Susan had the idea to do the Monster Movie Club and to show other films.

Club 57 was like a shamanic black box where the participants were the theater.

I got the job as the manager. I was starting to enlist other people to come on board and produce events and nights. The people I knew who were fashion designers, I said, “Why don’t you have a fashion show here?” People who were artists, it was like, “Do an art show.” Then we started making up our own theme nights and dance parties. It just grew and grew and grew.

It became a vehicle to exercise our collective childhood conditioning and all the things that had been thrown into the cauldron. Whether we had lived on the East Coast, on the West Coast, north or south, we all found each other.

We all loved David Bowie and we were all influenced by Disney. We all were interested in shapeshifting and music and dancing. Go-go dancing! We were go-go dancing our asses off every night. It took on a life of its own and more and more people came in.

The Monster Movie Club brought in a lot of cool people, but people told people, and it just grew exponentially. I started putting together a calendar of the events and it became a very, very special place. It was like a shamanic black box, where the participants were the theater.

One boyfriend of mine called it “an environment disco-tech.” I envisioned it as every night was a different channel, and the club was a giant television set. I started a group called The Ladies Auxiliary of the Lower East Side with a bunch of other girls and we started to throw events the way my mother and her friends did at the Junior League. It was like a punk rock version of Junior League, where we took all of these ’50s and early ’60s concepts of what femininity was, and womanhood, and turned it inside out. We had a lot of fun doing it. We had a prom for all of us who skipped our prom, because a lot of us were doing LSD that night, and we were not the jocks and the cheerleaders.

We hated all those people in Soho who were so pretentious. Any hint of pretentiousness was ridiculed and laughed at.

Did Pulsallama come out of that?

Pulsallama was born out of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Lower East Side because I wanted to have a Rite of Spring bacchanal and we needed a band for it. Not so much of a band. It was really at the beginning a theater piece. I think Bananarama had been happening at the same time, and the Slits.

I wanted to have us create this almost Stravinsky-like Rite of Spring cacophony, banging on pots and pans. One girl sort of played the bass and I think at that very first one there wasn’t even a drummer. That first performance was my favorite. We found all these hanging pieces of leather – there’s so much garbage in New York that people throw out, and you just drag it into your apartment. All this detritus we would drag into the club and make the sets and the environments out of, and then the next day, throw it all back out in the trash. Everything was one night only and everything was very disposable.

Pulsallama – Ungawa Pt.2 (Way Out Guiana)

It wasn’t like today, where people are like, “This is going to go viral and I’m going to make money off of this.” The period of time was so specific, and there was a recession. Nobody had any money. New York was bankrupt. It was a very bleak environment, extremely dangerous, so I think that was another reason to create an optimistic place, and also a “safe space.” We would’ve made horrible fun out of the idea of a safe space, because people can be caustic. The word “curate” was never used. We hated all those people in Soho who were so pretentious. Any hint of pretentiousness was ridiculed and laughed at.

Sometimes these things that are these kind of pure, underground, energetic explosions start to seep to the mainstream. Then you start to get the people coming in. Did that start to happen, or was it kind of a hallowed space for a good amount of time?

Club 57 was a pretty exclusive place. Club 57 was very much like The Little Rascals playhouse. When they would put on a show, they would just use all this trash, right? We never made money. Sometimes we did, but it wasn’t a profit-making venture and it was a little bit of a well-kept secret. I always wanted more people to know about it, because I wanted us to make more money, and more people means more fun. Some events there would be only like ten people there. Sometimes it would be jam-packed. It depended on the event. Sometimes we would have bands even though the neighbors complained about the music.

You mentioned that Klaus Nomi did some performances there, too.

Klaus Nomi performed at the New Wave Vaudeville Show. That’s where he premiered his Nomi persona and it was a big hit from the very beginning. He went on to exploit that. I mean that in just a showbiz way. However, then he became extremely exploited by these not-so-great managers, and he was an early AIDS casualty.

He got sick and died and none of us really knew what it was. About the time when AIDS came into the picture, that’s sort of when Club 57 was on its last legs. I had stopped managing it in September or October 1980, because I was doing my own pieces. I was writing and performing. I wanted to do music. It just was time for me to move on. It was too much to be there day and night.

A succession of other people took over as manager, brought new people in, and new and different vibes along the way. Unfortunately, it just died out, and I think a lot of it had to do with heroin. It really ravaged a lot of young, creative minds and bodies. I just praise the lord that I was not interested in that.

So you were doing projects, kind of your tangential, independent things.

When I stopped managing Club 57, I kept doing shows there and I was on this advisory board that Stanley had created. Because I had so many friendships and new collaborators because of Club 57, we moved on and did what we were doing, and honed it and improved on it, I think, at other clubs.

The Pyramid was a club that encouraged that, and some of us did things at the Mudd Club and Danceteria. Jim Fouratt and Rudolph Piper who ran Danceteria were very, very generous with all the clubs they ran. There was sort of a vaudeville circuit that was in the downtown clubs.

One of my closest friends at the time and a close collaborator was William Fleet Lively. He and I made up a lot of things together. I always wanted to do this performance in an elevator singing to music, because that’s where you hear elevator music. William helped me realize it and we put it on together.

His boyfriend Tommy was a sound designer for theater pieces and had the most incredible record collection that I’ve ever seen in my life. He was so funny with it. He had a sound effects collection that was to die for. I would go to their apartment and we would laugh over the titles of the sound effects. In fact, there was one called, “Pigs Squeal In Fear,” and that ended up being a song that my band Vulcan Death Grip did.

I had a heavy metal band as well as a folk band. Basically hit all the genres that you could. The heavy metal band Vulcan Death Grip was a parody at the beginning, but five minutes into rehearsal it ceased being a parody, because it was so much fun to play that music.

Vulcan Death Grip – Get It Up Or Get Out

Anyway, back to the elevator story. William helped me put together the show in the elevator of Danceteria. We decorated the elevator. I had a champagne bucket and champagne and we made a little stage. I was dressed up in a ’60s outfit and singing to these easy listening albums. We made a program of it and it went on for five hours. That was the thing: It was performance art because of the duration of it and the place it took place in.

This went on during a regular night at Danceteria, so people would come and go, and one of the people who came was Richard Marshall, who was a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He loved it so much that he asked me to perform it for a private gala party at the Whitney. I said, “Well, I will do that if you let me do it for the public as my own art piece.”

When you get hired to do things for rich people, it’s sort of a minstrel show. Every performer agrees that there’s nothing more thankless than performing at an opening, or a gala, or a benefit, or a rich person’s party. Let’s face it, the art world and the performance art world jumped the shark a long time ago, but if you can get some money out of those rich people, go for it.

It seems that your music, whether solo or with groups, all encapsulates this idea of shapeshifting, and almost transcending the moment to be free to teleport.

The recording sessions for Bongwater were really very freeing for me and I do want to credit Mark Kramer for giving me that kind of freedom. One thing that I think contributed to it was that I never thought in a million years anybody was listening to any of that. I did not really have a concept of what the underground music scene was back there in the ’80s. I just thought, “Oh, there will be a handful of geeks who will hear this.”

I never thought about where it was going to go. It had no purpose other than to make us laugh, and have fun, and for me to take the material that was in my dream journals and give it wings to fly. What was fun about being in the recording studio as opposed to being on camera is that you can completely transform yourself with a voice, with an accent or by playing around with a pitch, which we did. There’s a part, I think it’s on, “Too Much Sleep,” where a bunch of groupies are talking to each other.

Bongwater – Too Much Sleep

I just improvised all that stuff. Most of it was one take and it was very much in the spirit of what my friends and I were doing at Club 57. You did it for one night. There was no way in the world anybody from uptown was ever going to come down. Nobody cared. You were completely ignored, and there’s a great freedom in that.

You mentioned with Bongwater that there was this purity because it was purely for creative impulse, and to share it. Was there another moment that you felt like was a real highlight, another Bongwater song that you felt like you guys were able to create this magical world?

One song that ended up on the Bongwater records is called “Folk Song,” and that was a song I wrote specifically for a one-woman show called You Could Be Home Now, which was really a show about losing my home. My parents were divorced, my brother was sick and would maybe die any month. People were dying within weeks of being told they were HIV positive. He lived for ten years with HIV and he did many different trials, but we never knew. Is it going to be next week? Is it going to be next year? Is it going to be next month? Living in that kind of fear but not being able to talk about it was just horrible.

Creating music, writing, doing shows, performance art, even visual art, should try to express this stuff – the pain, the sense of loss, the need to reach out to other human beings. I just want to be with you. I just want to laugh. I just want to scream into a microphone. I want to cry over something.

Bongwater – Folk Song

Just let’s all get together and experience the joy of living, and the pain of living. “Folk Song” was written to express all the things I was feeling back then. I was still living in my apartment on Avenue A, which was across from Tompkins Square Park, and there were all these anarchist kids showing up. There was a lot of hate being spewed about. It was very much like today, but without the internet.

There was a lot of divisiveness, a lot of highly opinionated people on both sides of the fence and hostility. Yet every day is so precious. We could die any day. You could be hit by a bus, but with AIDS, all of us who lived during that time – and it was a good 20, maybe even 30 years – have a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. We watched so many people disintegrate and die in front of our eyes, and we felt so helpless about it that the frustrations of that time I poured into that song.

It was kind of like, “Whatever gives you hope.” I don’t fucking know, but just, let’s look at a little singing bluebird, or a patch of grass, and no more serial killer movies. Let’s watch some more musicals, like the ones I grew up with. Let’s have a little more positivity. Let’s take the good things out of Walt Disney. Let’s start focusing on some positive stuff and we need to do that now, so desperately.

Positive action can be revolutionary, and sometimes it’s underrepresented or overlooked as a form of being revolutionary and making change.

I always saw Club 57 as a very optimistic place. There were certainly nihilistic individuals there and there were some nihilistic activities. It got a little more nihilistic towards the end. I think heroin will do that, but even just the desire to get together and put on a show, it’s a positive. It’s a proactive movement, so Club 57 to me was a haven of positivity and optimism, even if we had to mine the past for it, because the circumstances were bleak.

Even before AIDS, there was a great deal of danger, and all sorts of hardships that I don’t need to get into now, but we needed to find each other and go-go dance and laugh and enjoy life, and just celebrate living. It’s like, “This is a gift we’ve been given to be creative. Let’s just do it, and throw it away, and do something different the next day.”

By Frosty on October 10, 2017

On a different note