Downtown Legend, Writer, and Renegade Glenn O’Brien Dies at 70
Photo: Glenn O’Brien. Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images.
“Andy Warhol died 30 years ago today. I remember thinking “who’s opinion will I care about now?” and I still don’t know. I hope to become more like him every day. He was and always will be my (dear) boss,” Glenn O’Brien wrote six weeks ago in what would prove to be his final Instagram post. He died today at the age of 70.
Writer. Editor. Renegade. Glenn O’Brien might be best known as “The Style Guy” at GQ magazine, but to those who lived and loved below 14th Street, he will always be so much more than that.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947, O’Brien attended Georgetown before studying film at Columbia Graduate School of arts and Sciences. But he left the Ivy League behind in pursuit of a higher calling: Andy Warhol’s Factory. As the first editor of Interview magazine, O’Brien set the tone, shaping the style and tone of Downtown’s chicest’s read from the years of 1971 to 1974. Even when he wasn’t at the helm, he continued to contribute, working as the music critic for twenty years, writing the influential column “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.”
O’Brien had a style all his own, one that beat with the heart of a poet. His prose was not the standard fare; he transformed verse into prose and his pen launched a thousand careers, as he gave voice to the underground realms punk and no-wave as they came up, crested, and washed over the fair shores of Manhattan.
But O’Brien was more than a mere writer; he was a bon vivant. His persona was far too vivacious for the silence of the printed page. So, in 1978, he set out into an uncharted world, launching Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a talk show on New York’s fledgling public-access television cable. Here he did whatever he wanted. It was anarchy in a bottle, exploding on your screen.
TV Party ran for four years, with O’Brien as host turning the camera on his comrades. Imagine Jean-Michel Basquiat manning the cameras as he wished, while Klaus Nomi, Debbie Harry, Amos Poe, David Byrne, Nile Rodgers, Iggy Pop, George Clinton, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Fab 5 Freddy, among countless others were special guests.
TV Party was the book I never did—though Glenn gracious contributed memories to an issue of powerHouse Magazine, which I edited. In it he wrote, “TV Party was ‘The TV show that’s a cocktail party, but which could also be a political party.’ We had lots of political icons on the set. Here’s Vladimir Lenin. We also had Marx, Engels, Chairman Mao, Mussolini sometimes, and Abraham Lincoln, all influences. Mao said, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ I figured political party came out of the TV tube’s cathode ray gun.’ I planned to run for mayor on the TV Party ticket, thinking that everybody likes TV so when they saw TV Party on the voting machine they’d choose us. Unfortunately we never got up early enough to get our petitions signed.”
O’Brien’s ambitions were bigger than politics. Ars longa, vita brevis, as the old saying goes. Art will be here long after we have left the show. While he was here, O’Brien was fully in the mix, collaborating with Maripol and Edo Bertoglio on Downtown 81, editing Rolling Stone, Oui, and High Times in the 1970s, writing for publications as diverse as Allure and Artforum, and working as the Creative Director of advertising for Barney’s New York.
Oh yeah, and he also edited Madonna’s notorious 1992 book, Sex, collaborated with Calvin Klein and masterminded the “Marky Mark” underwear campaign, was Creative Director of Island Records, and then started publishing books of his own. The biography on his website is a who’s who of the past 40 years, and well worth reading—even though it’s 6 years out of date. Anyone with ambitions of their own knows a benchmark when they see it.
Ohh, as if I could ever forget, there’s that great, unpublished novel that he wrote—the one where he… Well, you know what? I’m going to wait until an upstanding publisher makes moves and does it justice. Suffice to say it’s the roman a clef you’ve been waiting your whole life to read…
Rest in Peace Glenn O’Brien.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.