What it means to lose Glenn O'Brien

A soothing atonality charged the ambiance of shoddy black and white video framed on Glenn O’Brien. He was deftly rolling a joint as he nodded to the bass line in a plain white t shirt and black wayfarers – an unassuming magnification of his handsome face and graceful demeanor. As the music subsides, he barely looks up from the pile of cannabis to subtly announce that “the theme of todays show is: Time – is Not Money…though they are related….”

This was Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, his late night cable access show showcasing the vibrant talent of the New York underground from 1978 to 1982. The show bore his name but it was never about Glenn. It was a congregation of acts he culled from the oddest reaches of the avant-garde, or else from superstars like Debbie Harry and David Byrne who inhabited the atmosphere he created.

As a host Glenn was so captivating because of this very generosity. He was brilliant, stylish and good looking – but what he really cared about was culture, and the vivid array of personalities at its fringes. O’Brien had a gift for spotting talent, he championed Jean Michel Basquiat when the artist was yet unknown and often had Klaus Nomi on the program to demonstrate his skills in pie baking. No Wave bands like Mars and DNA were often on the show, and Basquiat was a regular fixture generating offbeat on-screen text throughout the airings.

Glenn’s humility and taste informed the delivery of his staggering wit. He was hilarious but subtle and quick, his humor wasn’t about eliciting response so there was no pause for laughter – most of the time it probably went over our heads anyway. Everything about O’Brien was elegant but he could seamlessly shift into his singular version of a Dionysian frenzy.  He was equal parts prince, equal parts punk, held together with the simplicity of a zen master. He had a charisma that you just couldn’t mess with; and it brought him to serve as the center of a solar system that included personalities ranging from Blondie, Basquiat, David Byrne, Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller, Fab 5 Freddy, and the entire reigning royalty of art and fashion.

TV Party was just a side note to O’Brien’s accomplishments. He first arrived in New York from Cleveland to find himself installed in the Warhol factory scene before establishing himself as a prolific journalist in the realms of music, art and fashion. His writing became a seminal force behind such publications as Interview, GQ, ArtForum, Allure, High Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and Art in America. He held a long time position as creative director at Barney’s, wrote plays, authored several of his own books and edited Madonna’s Sex.

It’s sad to lose Glenn O’Brien because it was impossible not to love him for his character, his sensibility, and remarkable talent – but also because he represented a New York that no longer exists, with original remnants disappearing little by little each year.  He was just himself, and he offered himself – however fabulous – the nurturing of things larger: friendship, culture, and the artistic empowerment of high and low society.

Glenn O’Brien passed away in New York on April 6th, 2017 from pneumonia after a battle with cancer. He is survived by his loving friends and family, and his inimitable cultural influence. We thank him for his irreplaceable contribution to the world of journalism but also to the city and New York culture itself.

Words by M.Pellerano