Books In Conversation
Adele Bertei with Luc Sante
Luc Sante and Adele Bertei met in 1977 while both were working at the Strand Bookstore, which at the time was a kind of hub of the No Wave. They have remained friends ever since, although Bertei removed to the west coast while Sante stayed in the east. Sante wrote books; Bertei sang in arenas, acted and directed, and wrote books. The two had a conversation about gender, class, vocal stylings, and outer and inner space. Their most recent offerings are Sante’s Maybe the People Would Be the Times, and Bertei’s Why Labelle Matters.
Adele Bertei: There’s so much to dig into in your newest, Maybe the People Would Be the Times, which brought me right back to 1977 and our playground, downtown NYC. In “Hooliganism,” you focus on Dave Carluccio’s story, but let’s talk about the concept. You coined one of my favorite descriptors in, I believe it was The Other Paris, “the girl-hooligan.” Please forgive me in advance because the term will surface in my prose! I miss the sense of radiant derangement that permeated our scene. Many of us could have been considered art hooligans in our quest to detonate and reassemble sounds and visions, a hooliganism I find similar in theory to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Dada, the Brutalists. Do you think contemporary literature, music, and art play it too safe today? There doesn’t seem to be much work left that hasn’t been co-opted and neutered by consumerism. Or is it just my age talking?
Luc Sante: The biggest single difference between our youth and now is that we had a physical community, an actual playpen on the Lower East Side, where for a few years it was possible to meet and interact with everyone you felt connected to—if only by music. Online communities are great, but it’s not at all the same thing as taking a short walk and running into a dozen people along the way—people you might just nod to and people with whom you might have an adventure. And however different we might all have been, we had this cultural umbrella that covered us, which aided in mutual recognition. Youth today seems balkanized, splitting themselves into smaller and smaller units and feuding with others over “the narcissism of minor differences.” This is true with regard to identity politics, but it even extends to music and culture in general.
We were hooligans for many reasons. We were bohemians without the mysticism of the Beats and the hippies. We lived minimally in ruined surroundings with few mainstream amenities. We felt ourselves separate from much of the world outside our own world—especially the United States of bad culture and bad politics. Many of us lived as if the rest of the US didn’t exist, which was possible to do then, pre-internet—most of us didn’t have television; many didn’t even read newspapers; for some, 14th Street was a frontier between nations, to be crossed with trepidation. Half of us were women; many of us were gay; many of us felt that capitalism was a vast mechanism of theft and degradation. But we were not an organized force of resistance: we were hooligans. We were the rats in the temple, living off discards and invisibly undermining the structure.
The cultural hooliganism of our time took many forms, but primarily coalesced around music, because we were still feeling and reacting to the reverberations of the 1960s. We would probably have mostly called ourselves punks then, not so much because we believed in Loud Fast Rules as because the punk moment was all about hooliganism. Patti Smith was a hooligan, and so were the New York Dolls, Alan Vega, Wayne County, Johnny Rotten, Poly Styrene, Siouxsie Sioux, the Slits, etc. But we could also find overlooked or nascent or sub rosa hooliganism in other genres, such as reggae and R&B. You could definitely say that Labelle were cultural hooligans. A ’60s girl group that became glam, Afrofuturist, affiliated with the liberation of women and gay people! They possessed all the skills of earlier eras, while turning a completely unprecedented face to the world.
Bertei: Speaking of unprecedented faces, I often passed for a boy and pimp-walked those E.V. streets like a tiny Iceberg Slim—the aftermath of teen years spent in institutions with Black girls and Black musical culture. Our downtown tribe didn’t think this out of the ordinary—everyone played to their passions, in dress and attitude. I carried that reform-school girl-hooligan pose like a life raft until it no longer served as cover for my insecurities. My parents were working class Sicilian and Irish—their lives dissolved into alcoholism, gambling, and schizophrenia while chasing the elusive American dream, so I was warehoused by the state of Ohio as a disposable.
I had a huge chip on my shoulder, compensation for a crippling lack of formal education. On the outside, you’d see a little badass swaggering around with a gospel howl, while inside I was more Jude the Obscure, yearning for Christminster. The greatest gift of my childhood was having been raised amidst Black culture. Cleveland was intensely segregated, and whites didn’t know Black folks, hadn’t any exposure to Black culture. When I was emancipated at 17, I felt so lonely, such an anomaly until I hit the gay bars in Cleveland. Music in the bars had everything to do with a mutuality of emotion that blurred color lines. And dance, well, what a life force! Segregation didn’t exist in gay culture in the 1970s.
Sante: Your book Why Labelle Matters suddenly reminded me that my favorite bar in the E.V. in the ’80s was in fact called Nightbirds—Second Ave between Fifth and Sixth, maybe? I also remembered seeing a poster for Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles tacked to a telephone pole in Beach Haven, NJ, in the summer of 1965. And it reminded me all over again of how awesome Labelle was and is. Gonna Take a Miracle has always been on my desert-island list, but there are so many facets of their careers I knew nothing at all about beforehand that you lay out comprehensively. I’m going to have to spend some serious time on YouTube.
The trio seems to be a solid unit for singers, less vulnerable than the duo (too confined) or the quartet (too ungainly). The energy flows evenly around the triangle. You explain this so well when discussing Sarah Dash’s role. Their three personalities together made a kind of fourth mind, if you will. Can you situate Labelle among the great trios?
Bertei: Labelle blew up the defining sonic of the trio with their ferocious vocals and stunning arrangements. I refer to their blend as both a rage of love, and gospel punk. The closest I could find to their sound is a gospel trio called The Legendary Ingramettes, an African American gospel group from Virginia. Labelle took off from the launchpad of the church harmonic straight into funked-up let-it-rip territory, and there hasn’t been anything like their vocal harmony sound since. For me, the mark of a fantastic trio is a singularity in tone, timbre, and musicality. The Andrews Sisters and The Boswell Sisters had a unique sound when they first debuted, but the Boswells’ musical sophistication and bodacious arrangements ruled. Think of groups like the Bee Gees, The Pointer Sisters, The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, The Delfonics. All so different and so singular. But for me, Labelle claims the throne when it comes to trios. TLC was the most recent trio I can think of having appreciated, and that’s going back—three little cocky OG’s telling stories with a tight vocal weave. For years I worked as a fantôme in LA, ghost-penned many music videos in the 1990s, including a few for TLC.
The Supremes had a very polished sound, thanks to Berry Gordy’s Motown hit factory, but Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles didn’t have such a hefty support system, which makes their transformation and rise to fame ever more miraculous. The power of the human voice is something we don’t hear a lot in contemporary music, mainly due to tech. Too many producers would rather squeeze all hell out of a vocal performance with compressors instead of teaching a vocalist how to work with a microphone, then riding a vocal track on the board to check its dramatic peaks. Auto-tuning is another way to dehumanize a vocal. It’s lazy and gimmicky, criminal on the part of the music industry, especially when working with a brilliant singer. Artists like Brittany Howard and Fiona Apple don’t allow this to happen in the studio. I want to hear the rawness, the imperfections. The chill-inducing when there’s duende, when singers are brave enough to expose their emotional wounds. It seems radio and the corporate music world do not take kindly to the beauty of voices in harmony but when people hear its glory, they sure do respond. Vocal trios and quartets are pretty much extinct at this point. No wonder we’re all at each other’s throats.
You’ve been a collector of music and ephemera since boyhood, snooping out glittering things with the rigor of Simenon’s detective Jules Maigret. The way you follow your fascinations as a collector and how you play with the ideas, how it feeds your writing is inspiring. We resonate with many of the same enchantments, especially French street culture, the chansons réalistes, Jacques Rivette, and eclectic soul and early doo-wop. Tell me the story behind the chapter “12 Sides” and the 45 RPMs. (By the way, I believe we used to dance at Puffy’s to Dyke and the Blazers!)
Sante: I first learned about Dyke and the Blazers from Jody Harris, your bandmate in the Contortions, who worked with us at the Strand. And it was while working there that I amassed almost all the 45s in “12 Sides,” going during my lunch break to the Abbey Bookshop on Fourth Avenue—the very last of the old Fourth Avenue booksellers—run by a man named George, who looked like a retired boxer. He had huge piles of 45s, in varying condition, few of them in sleeves, that he sold for maybe a dime apiece. Some were at best marginally playable, but you could risk a dime. Anyway I was always fascinated with the ones that had owners’ names written on them, and would try to imagine what those people were like. When years later I was asked to write a piece for the catalog of a museum show devoted to vinyl, I discovered that it already lived in my head and all I needed to do was transcribe it. (Sadly: no Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles in the batch.)
Adele: Your chapter “Mother Courage” is about Patti Smith. You quote a passage Rimbaud wrote to Paul Demeny about women, and I paraphrase; when women are finally free from their servitude to men—what strange new visions her ideas, her poetry might present. It was as if Rimbaud fever-dreamed Patti back in 1871. Patti’s Horses was released in late 1975, one year after Labelle released Nightbirds. Both recordings shook the worlds of music and presented a brand-new vision, playing with gender, genre, sexuality, and the politics of woman as a revolutionary artist. Patti gave me the courage to move to New York; to live outside of society… to pursue new sounds and visions not to be found in American culture at that time. I wasn’t alone. So many women flocked to NYC on the tail of Mother Courage. Our scene was made up of equal parts women and men, most experiencing gender (and sexual) fluidity for a freedom that defied labeling. What was it like for you, say, in 1975, when the women began to infiltrate the male-dominated domains of art, film, and music? Women who often presented as girl-hooligans? I feel that the presence of so many exciting women artists and musicians pushed the guys in the scene to go that much further creatively too. We didn’t label ourselves feminists, even though we were feminism’s most radical manifestation. There may have been a hundred of us downtown, and we all knew each other, collaborated—we were the people and the times, the music, the broken-down caverns of downtown New York, all morphing into imagination overdrive. A poetry of the streets, in a Rimbaudian sense. I call the women of that time the Pirate Whores of New Amsterdam—whores, in the sense of us selling our imaginations to art, for art’s sake. Pirates, because we took what we needed and left the rest. Tell me your thoughts on that moment of gender liberation.
Sante: One thing I didn’t say in my piece: After I first saw Patti perform, at Le Jardin in October 1973, I immediately went home and shaved off all my facial hair. I don’t know how closely I examined that at the time, although I knew it was significant. The act contained many possible shades of meaning, but without any doubt it signaled my endorsement of androgyny. (And no, I didn’t react to David Bowie that way because I didn’t like his music then; I liked Bowie only from Station to Station to Scary Monsters.) I hadn’t known all that many women in my life by that time. I had no siblings or first cousins; there were no girls my age in any of my childhood neighborhoods. I had one high school romance, but I was 17 before I met my first real female friend. But anyway I was ready, in fact excited by the new role of women in my cultural world, which was later embodied by our Lower East Side community. I had no real investment in the male share, could not (and still cannot) comprehend why guys would feel threatened by the enlarged role of women. I identified with Patti as much as I ever have with a performer, and a bit later identified unproblematically with the Raincoats, Lora Logic, the Dolly Mixture, the Modettes, Kleenex/Liliput, Delta 5, Kate and Cindy of the B-52s, Y Pants, Alison Stratton in Young Marble Giants, you and Pat Place in the Contortions, Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads, Sally Timms and Susie Honeyman in the Mekons—and then extended that backwards historically: Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, Geeshie Wiley, Damia, Frehel, Piaf, the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, Karen Dalton, Joni Mitchell—the list goes on and on. (And that’s just on the music front; my two greatest teachers and exemplars, Barbara Epstein and Elizabeth Hardwick, were girl pirates in their own time and world.) So yes, while I may not have been a woman, that doesn’t mean I didn’t benefit unconditionally from the increased presence and voices of women. Among other things, they helped me find parts of myself I didn’t even know were there.
I could say similar things about the role of Black people in my young life. Two who became among my closest friends in the early ’70s (and remain so today) opened my eyes, and New York City at the time was a great Black city. (I said that to a white French writer interviewing me for Actuel in the early ’80s and he got furious: "No, Paris is a great Black city!" he insisted.) The African American culture of the 1970s was dizzying, and my friends and I consumed just as much of it as of the punk culture down the street. When we weren’t at CBGB, say, we would be at a disco, dancing to James Brown and Labelle and Marvin Gaye and Aretha and Parliament-Funkadelic and a thousand evanescent disco acts. Here too, I simply could not imagine how anyone could fail to be moved, even if your racial heritage was, like mine, 99% northwestern European (1% Chinese—the so-called Genghis Khan gene). Maybe it’s because I grew up as an isolated immigrant, but my tribalism was entirely one of taste. There are a few areas in which I struggle to reckon with Black culture—religion, for example, because Black culture upends my Western European reflexive antinomianism and anticlericalism. And Afrofuturism challenges my attitudes toward futurism and science fiction, which otherwise I generally dislike. I’m not keen on technology—even though I of course use it and have benefited from it. I have never wished to go up in a rocket or set foot on astral bodies. But Afrofuturism interests me, not least because its ambition is spiritual, whereas the space imagery I grew up with as a white kid in the ’60s was all about conquest. But in what ways do you think Afrofuturism is more than just a style? Where can it ultimately go?
Bertei: Loving how you’ve listed so many of the amazing women musicians of that time! There was also Malaria! from Berlin, the Au Pairs from Birmingham, and Ikue Mori from Japan, the drummer in DNA. Connie Burg from Mars, and Lydia Lunch, of course. I’m currently writing about this first wave of women musicians, the pre-Riot Grrrls, who defied labels and genre, in my next memoir.
I’m reluctant to speak to where Afrofuturism might be going when so many great Black writers and scholars are currently addressing it, in fiction as well. The philosophical questions around time travel and immortality, and the healing that can evolve from these explorations is inspiring. I was blown away by the series Watchmen on HBO, by how the filmmakers play with Afrofuturism, especially with time. And to your insight about space and what it meant to us white kids, as opposed to Afrofuturist spiritual ideas, I remember well how the race to space was all about competition for supremacy between America and Russia. Russia kept kicking our asses. The first man to orbit the earth, Yuri Gagarin, the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, the first spacecraft to land on the moon, and Venus. Like you, I was born in the mid-1950s and grew up in the ’60s when space shows were all the rage on television; The Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space. Star Trek, of course. I wanted flying cars and jetpacks like the Jetsons, but I never linked these hokey visions of space with spirituality, until I was forced to endure a trauma, which taught me how to fly in the spiritual sense. Having grown up Catholic as a child, spirituality meant macabre, sadomasochistic art. Guilt and punishment. And the music left me cold. Black church culture couldn’t be more different; full of love, open to forgiveness and redemption through the joining of human voices in song. Powerful stuff, not only on the soul but physiologically, on the body. Scientists are discovering the healing effects of singing on the vagus nerve, and for PTSD. I know where I’d like to see Afrofuturism going; as a way into a more collective, intersectional and trans-generational groupthink about building a socially-just, utopian society. But then, I’ve always been a dreamer.
Your works on the societies of the street illuminate how the best of our cultures—in art, music, dance, fashion—evolves from the poor and working-class, the rebel and the criminal, the immigrants, the dreamers. What spawned your initial attraction to the worlds of Low Life and The Other Paris?
Sante: My background is 100% working-class. I was the first person in my family to finish high school. My father worked in factories from the age of 14 until he retired at my present age, 66, and my mother was a school cafeteria lunch lady, a waitress, and a low-level office employee (mostly filing, because she was semi-literate). I was born in the same city in which my entire male line was born, going back at least to the first census, in 1223. That city, Verviers, long a factory town with little cultural distinction, made entirely of brick and steeply sloping down both banks of the Vesdre River, has haunted me my whole life. I immediately saw the Verviers in New York, and in a different way the Verviers in Paris. My habit of seeing cities from sidewalk level was ingrained in me by the time I was 4 or 5. When I first saw NYC—on Halloween 1959, as we were leaving the US forever to move back to Belgium—the two things that impressed me weren’t tall buildings or the signs of wealth and power. Instead I fixated on the outdoor displays of the 42nd Street theaters (while my mother kept grabbing my chin and turning it out toward the cars instead), and it was Halloween (which didn’t exist in Europe then) with hundreds of unaccompanied children running manically through the streets in minimal costumes: bedsheets, cowboy hats, improvised space helmets. It was the feast of misrule in miniature. So for me the primary constituent elements of cities were set long ago: carnival, temptation, desire, revolt, threat. I can walk through the cities of the past in my imagination as if I were still five years old, feeling excited and frightened and curious and overwhelmed.
But sometimes I worry that I live in the past all too easily. I know the past; it’s where I’m from. The present is harder for me to reckon with and gets harder with every passing year. I may not have liked the music of the ’80s and ’90s as much as that of the ’60s and ’70s, but at least I understood what was going on. It was still based on familiar units: rock band, vocal ensemble, rhythm section, rapper with backing track, and so on. Now rock seems completely irrelevant and obsolete to me, but I struggle to understand what has come after. Everything seems super-glossy and machine-made, very little sticks in my mind. It feels like a sterile landscape, even though I know there are exceptions, even big ones (Billie Eilish is truly amazing). Getting back to Labelle, I feel as though their social impact lives on—but what about their musical impact? Leaving aside the fact that Labelle was a trio of virtuosos, what can you tell me about the group’s influence on subsequent generations? I mean beyond just their inspirational example, has there been anyone since who has identifiably reflected their approach?
Bertei: When I heard Janelle Monae’s first LP, The ArchAndroid, I thought, wow, she’s the progeny of Labelle and Octavia Butler. She definitely comes closest, but then so does St. Vincent(Annie Clark). Both artists are Bowie-capable of slipping through skins to give us points-of-view from provocative terrains, in past and future with the newness of a woman’s perspective. They embrace theatricality and imagination, which is rare in popular music these days. I look forward to watching their trajectories as artists. Would Madonna or Lady Gaga have been so brazen and theatrical had Labelle not opened the door back in 1974? Hard to say. Labelle were descending from the rafters on wires dressed like avian cosmonauts! Jean-Paul Gaultier’s infamous cone bra and trapunto quilting for Madonna came straight from Larry LeGaspi’s pen, who designed Labelle’s silver space costumes, then went on to create iconic looks for KISS and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Labelle brought us the original Mothership.
Music spoke a different tongue then, was far more provocative and political—neither obtuse nor deliberately impersonal. It was a music flush with heart. There isn’t much discussion today about the social engineering that goes on through popular music, streaming, TV, and film, yet I feel it’s at the root of our divisive chill and lack of empathy. Music has the power to transform culture. What’s your take on this? Also, on the extremely un-musical language of academia—its “members only” lexicon and sanctimonious call-out and cancel culture?
Sante: Oy. I’ve been teaching for nearly 30 years, 22 of them at Bard, but I’m hardly part of academia. I’m very part-time, I don’t attend faculty meetings, and my friends on the faculty are almost all artists. So what I know about academia and its weird practices is all from the media, and I won’t pretend to have a very broad or detailed or coherent view of what is going on there. But I see the effects of academia every day in writing that crosses my screen, and it is dire. People are pulled into academia from all nations, races, and classes, and then they are all outfitted in identically dead language, the language of writing-by-committee, the language that anticipates every conceivable objection and neutralizes them with stacks of conditionals and armor-plated readymade phrases. If you want to make sure that your words are inclusive and kind, what you do is to become self-aware—you question every phrase, but you remain yourself and above all remain human. Your true language will involve belches and farts sometimes. It will have taste and touch and smell. Academic language is purposely non-human, as if it had been put together in a laboratory. I blame two things: French intellectuals of the ’70s and ’80s, who got American academics to believe that the humanities could compete with the sciences by being dry, dull, and confusing (I once got into a bad argument with someone I like who insisted that academic writing had to be hard to read in order to avoid mundane associations and make the process into a struggle, something to be earned); and the factionalism of New Left politics, which defined ever-narrower territories of self-definition. I’m not saying anything against identity politics, since the reason it is necessary is due to white straight male identity politics. But I truly wish that people who are no longer in school and have important ideas to communicate thought of writing as fun, and instead of using the same labels and worn-down phrases, tried to come up with some of their own, closer to the heart and the ground.