The Rocket Files #3: TV Party Tonight!
There once was a gift to the American television landscape and that gift was called local or public access. The act of truly democratizing a small part of the airwaves by, with some technical training and a lot of ingenuity, letting anyone have a show. This included religious programming that ranged from protestants to Unarius (all hail Uriel and her spangly gowns right now) to cooking to experimental art to political activists, musicians, puppeteers, you name it and it’s probably been on some public access channel across the United States in the last forty years. (Given that I worked at a public access station for over five years, I have seen all of the above and more.) Access in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, like the city itself, was especially riveting. You had legendary Screw publisher, Al Goldstein, with his long-running show, Midnight Blue, the controversial figure of Ugly George and a show called Mrs. Mouth, where the titular star was a guy’s head framed in close-up, upside down with a wig on his chin.
From 1978 to 1982, you also had Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party.
O’Brien, an off and on editor at Interview magazine and a fantastic writer in his own right, started the show, along with his close friend, guitarist and one of the founding members of Blondie, Chris Stein. O’Brien served as the main host and used his effortless cool and love of the zany bulleting into the surreal to create a one-of-a-kind program. O’Brien mentioned in a 2014 article for Vice that Playboy After Dark was an influence, but comparatively, TV Party made that program look more like the Brady Bunch Variety Hour. (Plus, O’Brien was infinitely more captivating than the pajama-wearing-ho-daddy-mummy.)
The one thing the two did truly have in common was appearances by some heavy hitters in the art world, including Jean Michel Basquiat, Robert Fripp, Debbie Harry (on a Pogo stick!), Klaus Nomi, Arto Lindsay, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and many more. Playboy After Dark had respectively featured Buddy Rich, Harry Nillson, Ike & Tina Turner, Deep Purple, and Grand Funk Railroad, though mercifully, to the best of my knowledge, there were no leering shots of Mark Farner on a Pogo stick.
Then, there was Charles Rocket.
In the glorious maelstrom of punk, post-punk, post-pop-art, and post-pop-punk-art, was one Charles Adams Claverie aka Charles Rocket. A sure sign that you have a true-blue charismatic in your midst is by looking around them. There are a special, rarefied few in this life that have that lightning-rod magic of attracting and connecting with other standout artists and figures. Just take a look at figures like Rozz Williams or David Bowie. Or Charles Rocket.
Rocket was enough of a reoccurring and memorable figure on the show that O’Brien even name checks him in his article about TV Party that he wrote for Vice back in 2014, placing Charles next to artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop. “Latter day regular” is the description used by another writer, going by the name of “Anorak” for the website, flashback dot com.
While not every episode of TV Party is available on physical media, sadly, a handful of them were released via Brink Vision in 2005, including one that features a whole of Rocket, as well as other phantasmagorical guests. Their release of the “Everything for Sale” episode is a total gift and sweet act of some cultural preservation of a moment in time when New York City wasn’t raped of its grime, clutter, and magic and struggling artists still could have a fighting chance of being able to afford to live there. AIDS and crack were looming shadows but had not fully bloomed into mass devastation. The key players may have sniffed out that there was something magical happening but probably had no idea of both how fleeting this was and how pivotal this particular show was as an act of recording American art history.
“Everything for Sale” begins with the phrase, “Live from the TV Party Building,” with the leisurely intro revealing Rocket around the three-minute mark while the show’s amazing theme song plays. Imagine if the music from Liquid Sky had a sense of humor and lunched with Warhol. That’s exactly what the theme song sounds like. We also get a good glimpse of the core of the TV Party Orchestra, with bandleader and primo violinist Walter Steding, guitarist Karen Geniece, and percussion-drummer-man-extraordinaire Lenny Ferrari. Rocket defies all odds by looking casually stylish while rocking some traffic-cone-orange jeans, white shirt, and some kind of off-white sleeve wrapped around his left wrist. (I’m assuming the latter is related to playing the accordion, but I am also, admittedly, no expert on free reed aerophones.)
That “IT” factor that silent film stars had, where they could appear a few inches within the frame and your line of vision is drawn to them like a gale force wind, baby, that’s what Rocket had. The cat was magnetic and yet, always had the subtle gait of a man who was almost unaware of it. No rock star or Hollywood egos, here.
Glenn O’Brien introduces Charles on the accordion, as well as Gun Club founder and art-juggernaut Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and of course, “...starring...ME!” At least 50% of O’Brien’s superpowers was pure cheek. There’s a quick plug for the Greenwich Village business, New Morning Bookstore, which from a quick Google search looks like it is long gone. (Sad, but not shocking, but at least it doesn’t look like it has been replaced by a Sbarros or Flavor Town.)
A few minutes later, Glenn gives one of the absolute best Rocket-related descriptors put to AV with “From wit to witticism to heavy metal accordion.” Just soak this in for a moment. HEAVY METAL ACCORDION. Holy shit. That burst of wind you just felt on your shoulder was the gates of the heavens opening up because this is some straight up musical divinity. We’re talking rock & roll authority on one of the most traditionally un-rock-and-roll instruments ever. Only Joe Spinell breaking out an all-zither rendition of a Fugs tune could rival what our eyes and ears will roll around in like gluttonous, sated beasts.
With guitar pedals hooked up to his accordion, Rocket works out some incredible feedback, bleeding into some eerie noise, all before ripping into my now favorite version of the old Troggs chestnut from 1966, “Wild Thing.” This performance is so good that it’s downright euphorically phantasmagorical. If one is not moved by it, you better call an exorcist because you’re possessed by the same Terra smegma that gave us AstroTurf and Gwyneth Paltrow. Backed up by Ferrari, it’s the literal definition of fun.
He follows this up with some silver-toned politeness, with the question, “Can I do one more?” We all know the answer, with the proclamation, “This one is called Le Bibliotheque” and he and Ferrari perform this very evocative and Nino Rota-esque number, whose only lyrics are bits and pieces of French sayings, like “Comment allez-vous” and “Ou est la Bibliotheque?” The lower third graphic accurately states, “Charles Rocket Superstar.”
After an interview with a member of no wave band The Eel Dogs and a video of one of their past live performances, Rocket gets to play with the Walter and the gang on a mostly instrumental piece called “The Big Bounce.” The song itself has a nice, Fernando di Leo-soundtrack type vibe to it. Since everything is indeed for sale, Glenn does a plug for the now legendary ROIR (Reachout International Records), citing such stalwarts as Suicide, The Dictators, James Chance, and 8 Eyed Spy. During the hippest shill, described by O’Brien as “Better than K-Tel, folks!,” Rocket noodles on the accordion for background music.
There are 35 seconds of meditation with Rocket acting a bit like me during family prayers as a kid, namely looking up until you get caught and quickly putting your head down for awkward reverence. Walter Steding owns this tiny segment, between his smirking and laughing. Afterward, O’Brien interviews a writer named Roland about his book, Roland’s Rare Brains. Off camera, you can hear Rocket prompts Roland to mention the name of his book and read a passage from it. (Charles’ past experience as a TV news anchor possibly kicking into gear here.)
Post-Roland is the man, myth, and legend eternally here, Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Jeffrey is all blonde (in his Marilyn from Hell phase) and baby faced here as Glenn asks about being the president of the Blondie Fan Club. This leads to my favorite non-Rocket exchange of the whole episode.
Glenn O’Brien: Do you have a PO Box?
Jeffrey Lee Pierce: OF course, not.
Maybe you had to be there.
Pierce mentions his broken guitar but gets to borrow Geniece’s and performs an old blues dirge about a southbound train. Afterward, Jeffrey mentions both Charles AND his heavy metal accordion. It’s like two boldly beautiful and unique supernovas meeting at a cafe and breaking bread.
From prodigy to put-on, the next guess is a German artist? Man? Drifter? Lackey? I’m still not quite sure, but his name is Lothar and eventually joins the stage where Charles and Lenny play, while Rocket sings “Why can’t I get laid?” It’s amazing and in some cherished alternative universe, this is still going on.
That might be the end of the episode, but not the entire DVD. There are some choice extras, with the biggest highlight (both for Rocket fans and music lovers) starring an unjustly obscure musical ensemble entitled J. Walter Negro & The Loose Jointz. They do two songs, including their sole released single, “Shoot the Pump,” and holy hell, these guys were the real deal. They mixed funk, early hip-hop, and, especially with the first song, spoken word poetry into a sound that feels fresh NOW. Showing this clip to my husband, he remarked that the lead singer, J. Walter Negro aka famed graffiti artist Ali aka Marc Andre Edmunds, reminded him partially of Gil Scott Heron and he’s completely right. The charisma, the biting insight, the politics, the groove, the Loose Jointz had it all and were well ahead of the curve because of it.
Reading into their story reveals one of famous peers (IE. Basquiat), initial promise (opening for artists like Blondie and Kid Creole & the Coconuts) and recording a full length album. Sadly, it also reveals the band getting rooked on their advance by the lawer of their producer, John Hammond, after the latter suffered a stroke. Their album ended up being sat on, remaining unreleased to this day. Ali’s growing drug addiction didn’t help matters, with the young charismatic cutting out of this life in the mid-1990s. Addiction and crooked business are twin plagues that have robbed us of not only great art but standout people. At least we have this disc as a strong artifact of some unsung musical pioneers.
TV Party ended in 1982. O’Brien would go on to be a rightfully respected writer and would even work with Madonna on the text portions of her infamous SEX book. Pierce would go on to record some of the best music to have come out of the musical tar pits of the 1980s and 90s. Ferrari would play with artists like James Chance and Lou Reed. Walter Steding would go on to record two albums and become a painting assistant for Andy Warhol. Who the hell knows what happened to Lothar? And Rocket? C’mon.
Charles Rocket kept being absolutely fantastic, both in acting and music. (I wouldn’t be doing this continuing series if he wasn’t!) His heavy metal accordion still backed up by Lenny, would even be part of the most fascinating triple bill ever. At a 1981 Halloween concert in Gainsville, Florida (?!), Rocket appeared along with the new wave cult band The Swimming Pool Q’s and THE PLASMATICS. There’s a great write-up of this event from Pool Q’s band member, Jeff Calder, on their official website. In summary, the audience was super hostile to them but actually calmed down during Rocket’s performance. If settling down a bunch of drunken Floridians who are mainly there to see the Plasmatics blowing stuff up isn’t a testament to the man’s charm and talent, I don’t know what is.
Next on The Rocket Files...It’s time for a little gender-bending.