Jack Newfield Catches the Electric Circus Opening on St. Marks
Hippies & New Frontier On 'Desolation Row'
By Jack Newfield
The immediate reaction was that Rome must have been like this in that middle period when decline was becoming decay. The more generous after-thought was that, after all, its purpose was to benefit a worthwhile charity. And the final reflection ran to the imagery of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row":
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors.
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner...
Einstein disguised as Robin Hood...
Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are fighting in the captain's tower while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.
The scene was the opening of the Electric Circus, the latest total environment, McLuhanist discotheque. Its owners spent $300,000 for the flashing strobes, films, music, astrodome-style turf, and circus acts -- but neglected to include air conditioning. So, the whole gala event was like a mixed-media happening on the BMT rush hour.
The invitation bore the names of such pop prophets as Warren Beatty, the Beach Boys, Robert Kennedy, and Truman Capote. But most of the magnetic sponsors had the good sense not to show. Phil Ochs was in California writing songs, and Kennedy spent the evening with a millionaire discussing his slum program for Bedford-Stuyvesant.
But about 3000 people filed past the sign in the lobby announcing that "Occupancy by more than 740 people is illegal." The sponsors admitted to mailing out 5000 invitations.
By 10 p.m., the scheduled opening time, there was a line of people on St. Mark's Place a half-block long, populated by a variety of Beautiful People types who probably never had to stand on line for anything before in their lives. The cavalcade of rented limousines curled back around Third Avenue, an illusory boon to the area's wizened panhandlers. Across the street several hundred locals -- hippies and East Europeans -- stood behind police barriers. Four costumed karate experts slowly shepherded the customers -- $15 a head -- in, two by two, just like the ark. And downstairs, welterweight fighter Joe Shaw, the lonely bouncer in the almost vacant Dom, watched the exploding flashbulbs silhouette the karate choppers in their clean white robes, a symbol of faddist passions of the Electronic Age.
Inside, people danced, sweated, pushed and blinked. The few Linear Conceptualizers quit immediately. There was the Poet of Pop, Tom Wolfe, and the Fugs's Tuli Kupferberg, and novelist Mary McCarthy, and Kennedy-in-law Steve Smith, and folk-singer David Blue, and halfback George Plimpton. It looked like the cover of the next Beatles' album. The New Frontier met the Underground, while the Beautiful People kept score.
Out of the gigantic loudspeakers pranced the music of the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. There were circus acts by a perfumed trapeze performer and an escape artist; the jugglers, however, couldn't make it because of the blinding strobes. The hippies seemed to have a great time dancing, but most of the Beautiful People kept trying to pick out the hippies. Most of the latter were stoned. The bar was so hip it as serving scotch, gin, and bananas.
Playwright Harry Koutoukas told anyone who would listen that his colored costume was "running." A man dressed up like a Roman senator or Zero Mostel observed, "Now I can appreciate the Paris Review Ball." Someone else, with tattoos on his head, tried to push his way to the bar saying he felt "like I'm on a treadmill to oblivion."
There is a Manchester-like temptation to leech profound meaning from the absurd. But the significance is slight. If it proves McLuhan's theories of an electronic future valid, it also proves Michael Harrington's theories of a decadent present equally true.
At midnight the Beautiful People were still coming in tuxedos as the film-maker, Barbara Rubin, wearing a "Voznesensky Glows in the Dark" button, aggressively interviewed them for some future underground cinepic. And Joe Shaw, the fighter looked up at the lights and music and had a small smile on his face.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]