On Friday, April 7, Glenn O’Brien died of pneumonia in Manhattan at the age of seventy. For the writer tasked with composing his obituary, organizing his résumé could have been no small feat. How does one group his publications? By distinguishing his editorial-board positions—to name a few, he was the first editor-in-chief of Andy Warhol’s Interview, and co-founded BOMB and Spin—from his long-running columns for Artforum and GQ? What to do with his responsibilities that often intersected, as with his Interview music column, Glenn O’Brien’s BEAT, which ran for a decade after he departed the magazine’s editorial board? How does his career as a copywriter for Calvin Klein and Barneys factor into the mix? What about his screenplay for Downtown 81, the film starring Jean-Michel Basquiat that immortalized No Wave–era New York? And what of his adventures in stand-up comedy (he opened for David Johansen of the New York Dolls), poetry (his collections Soapbox and Human Nature), and music (his “socialist-realist rock band” Konelrad and new wave act Chad & Sudan, not to mention his stint at Island Records designing covers for the likes of U2 and Pulp)?
Despite his perpetual professional motion, if there is one community in which we can ground O’Brien, it is New York City—particularly the post-Warhol, post-Chelsea Hotel generation of New York artists living and working in the late 1970s. He is perhaps best known for hosting the public access cable show TV Party, a late-night cult sensation beloved by local countercultural youth and David Letterman alike. O’Brien envisioned New York–ifying the cocktail lounge vibe of Hugh Hefner’s talk show Playboy After Dark, a show whose formal innovation and political engagement inspired O’Brien: “He gave a forum to outsiders like Pete Seeger to express anti-establishment views, [and] Hef’s shows were also the most racially integrated in the history of television,” he told 10 Magazine in 2011. So, every week at 12:30 a.m., O’Brien and his friends—notably Basquiat, filmmaker Amos Poe, photographer Edo Bertoglio, and Blondie members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (who co-hosted and co-created TV Party)—went uptown to the now-defunct Experimental Television Control soundstage to tape a live show, showcasing his own cohort of artists living and working below 14th Street.
TV Party was the subject of a meandering independent study I undertook in my senior year of college; my adviser suggested reaching out to O’Brien in one of our final sessions but, as finals period loomed, I didn’t have time to get my act together. Truthfully, I was also a little intimidated by the prospect. Besides, I figured that since I’d be moving to New York after graduation, I could polish up the paper into something presentable and, at some point down the road, get in touch.
Part of the fun of studying TV Party was the time-capsule effect of watching now-familiar artists hang out and shoot the shit before their careers took off. With most episodes loosely structured around a theme—anything from the costume party episode “Halloween” to O’Brien’s faux slow-motion delivery in “Time and Makeup”—O’Brien and friends would banter, read poetry or political manifestos, play music, and hang out, letting whim and instinct drive the action. Although high-profile guests like David Bowie or Iggy Pop came through as the show gained word-of-mouth, the show mainly served as a platform for those in O’Brien’s more immediate orbit. This meant that a typical episode might feature David Byrne playing country music, or John Lurie ripping out a blistering saxophone solo with the Lounge Lizards, or Basquiat overlaying phrases like “STAY HIGH, MOSES” onscreen. The broadcasts crystallized a pre-Internet underground moment I felt I had missed, but knowing something of these figures’ journeys injected unintended poignancy into my retroactive experience of the show.
In other hands, a show like TV Party could easily be a shallow glimpse into the social lives of self-absorbed young artists, but the specificity of O’Brien’s vision elevated its form and content beyond the ’70s equivalent of a Facebook Live jam session. Although music and antics set the tone, O’Brien’s hangouts earnestly merged levity with political purpose: they served as a counterpoint to the hyper-regulated talk-show mainstream. From the outset, TV Party welded false binaries with an ease that few artists, maybe not even Warhol, could ever emulate in their work: it was funny and serious, cool and inclusive. As an aspiring writer and ’70s New York enthusiast, I looked to O’Brien as an anachronistic emblem of a possible future, a life in cultural criticism and art that didn’t check politics at the front door.
My sixth sense had been telling me that O’Brien wasn’t well. Normally quite active over @lordrochester on Twitter, he had barely let out a peep since the beginning of 2017. But those inklings come and go, safely couched in distant speculation. As the obituaries materialized one by one on Google News, I retweeted a couple, wondering whether or not that might be a hollow gesture. But that only led to questions of what a meaningful gesture might be, considering the breadth of O’Brien’s memory and his resonance across distant airwaves.
Obituaries may dutifully enumerate accomplishments and mark the years, but a public figure’s death often strikes a personal chord. When they pass, fans grieve the years of emotional intimacy they have with their music, or writing, or artwork, or public personas. Processing their mortality can be physiologically and spiritually jarring, a laceration of existential safety blankets.
Many of us turn to social media to verbalize those feelings about figures in the public eye. The form this grieving takes—the trending topic and accompanying stream of photos and quotes—is familiar, but it’s still a young phenomenon, and its structure invites ethical critique. After David Bowie’s death in 2016, Sunday Times film critic Camilla Long aired her discontent with the Twitter outpouring on, where else, Twitter. She found the response “insincere…. This is NOTHING to do with Bowie. This is to do with the utter insincerity of social media grief, the odd mimicry and circle-jerkery of it.” In 2014, Dylan Byers wrote ambivalently for Politico about the social media response to Robin Williams’s death. Although the sheer volume of remembrances could be profoundly moving, Byers wrote, something felt crass about seeing these tweets wedged between memes or foodstagrams. The tweets could even seem competitive in tone, as though trying to “out-sad” each other; as Byers puts it, “every post, every tweet, every click is ultimately about you.”
It’s hard to shake the anxiety that a tweet contextualizes loss as the departure of a character in the great drama of one’s own personal brand. But the remembrance tweet can break away from its status as a mere unit of currency within a continuum of silly quips, as it can help the bereaved find solace in a global community of fans. As Byers observes, a trending name represents an “honest, organic measurement of one’s influence and impact on society,” a “democratic act.” In an essay for the Atlantic rebutting Long’s reaction to “Bowie blubberers” (her words), Megan Garber argues that we recognize social media grief as a communal ritual, one that helps fans come to terms with the loss of a public figure through remote commiseration. Once social media enters the equation as a digital extension of our consciousness, what’s significant is not our use of that space to grieve—that’s inevitable—but that it opens up a gateway to others grappling with similar feelings.
Although the “social” aspect of “social media” might now be associated with an exchange of personal brands, perhaps TV Party’s approach to live, embryonic social networking might offer another perspective on its strengths. In her book Live Television: Time, Space, and the Broadcast Event, the media theorist Stephanie Marriott isolates live television as uniquely capable of “shrinking space,” as, since show and spectator share temporal space, communication can take place in real time. The one-sided nature of the broadcast event simply means that the host interfaces with an “absent other,” which limits their interactions to more generalized visual or verbal cues.
In this spirit, O’Brien’s vision for TV Party always extended beyond the physical confines of his own party space, so he found medium-specific ways to reach out to his remote TV Party-ers. By directly addressing his viewership, allowing them to phone into the show, and including them in elaborate gags (which ran the gamut from a mock crusade to encouraging viewers to masturbate), O’Brien attempted to bridge the gap between audience and spectacle. As he declared in his double-page “TV Party Manifesto” spread in the inaugural issue of BOMB, “SOCIALISM begins with GOING OUT EVERY NIGHT,” situating the nightly party space as the most productive arena for culture-building. That very act of going out every night could also mean tuning into TV Party; it might not be the same as a face-to-face conversation, but it was a way of supporting a local, alternative public.
Even if one episode began with O’Brien ceremoniously rolling a joint, it wasn’t the weed talking when he announced at the top of each episode, “Welcome to TV Party, the show that is a cocktail party but could also be a political party.” O’Brien asserted in the BOMB manifesto that TV Party should seize back the airwaves from “continental and global communications monopolies.” By hosting viewers at a virtual party, TV Party argued for telecommunication as cultural engagement—audiences could support their local arts scene by remotely “hanging out.” O’Brien’s manifesto is more theatrically post-Yippie than a dire call to action—he suggested that TV Party run for mayor of New York City—but as he reflected to PopMatters.com in 2005, the show was “satirical but based on things that I really thought.” By creating community-based counterprogramming to the hegemonic major networks, the work of art could strike back at the age of mechanical reproduction…and you could stay high while it happened, Moses.
Social media more conventionally “shrinks the space” of its mediated interactions by offering the potential for immediate feedback through instant messaging, likes, or retweets. A tweet isn’t quite a scream into the void, but a message to that mysterious listener—one who might arch an amused eyebrow at your strangest jokes, or one who might surf the web on your emotional wavelength. Perhaps that user exists, perhaps not. But the original dispatches continue to orbit the web, free to be picked up by a second party.
Garber’s Atlantic essay concludes with a meditation on human nature, contending that those who decry social-media grief as insincere are “assuming the worst of others, rather than the best.” It wasn’t all sunshine and roses in TV Party’s case—O’Brien and Stein fielded numerous obscene calls during phone-in segments—but the show’s cult following and legacy managed to facilitate interpersonal connection over shared local and countercultural interests. In that spirit, perhaps the alternative publics one finds online through trending topics and shared interests are creating constructive communities rather than trivial cyberspaces. As a person unpacks the otherwise isolating emotions of loss, the Internet may not guarantee a flesh-and-blood support system, but it opens up an unprecedented possibility to connect with an empathetic ear.
Tweeting when someone close to you dies expresses different sentiments than tweeting to memorialize someone you’ve never met. Your relationship with that person might feel intimate—you might know all their lyrics, their surprising side projects, and the details of their romantic dalliances. That is, until they die, and, your newsfeed awash in obituaries and eulogies and retrospectives, you are forced to confront the full magnitude of who they were beyond you.
This understanding of why we issue memorial tweets has origins in Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, where he posited that mourning can respond to not only the loss of a human being, but also “the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of [a loved one].” These feelings provoke questions about the personal significance of that abstraction and what its loss might represent to the griever, who is asked to go on alone. An inability to properly release that grief makes it more difficult for the mourner to process the loss, and they often withdraw into self-contemplation.
Public figures can become spiritual abstracts that shape our perceptions, instilling deep personal connections for the viewer through their body of work. Perhaps that figure reconnects you with a specific turning point in your life, or a lost moment of youth, or a loved one. Their passing then produces a cognitive dissonance that feels like part of you has passed away as well. Unpacking that meaning is the work of grief; death, in any form, amplifies our daily experience and leads us to examine our personal relationships and degree of fulfillment.
This personal reckoning might be why other voices and accounts are so soothing after the fact, and why the Internet is so appropriate for lessening the isolation. Social media can provide that sustenance, and so can first-person accounts. In the week following O’Brien’s passing, the New York Times collected oral-history-style remembrances from members of his downtown circle. From Danny Fields remembering O’Brien’s arrival at the Factory to photographer Roberta Bayley recounting how O’Brien and Basquiat once “borrowed” her car to buy drugs, the collective send-off was appropriately full of humor. Fellow downtown icon and artistic polymath Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy, contributed a eulogy to the Village Voice in which he recounted becoming friends with O’Brien after inviting him to be a guest on his college radio show. “Cool is subjective, but confidence—the courage to be different and go against the grain—was a trait among leaders of the scene like Glenn,” Brathwaite reflected.
This expression of O’Brien’s ethos embodies the multiplicity of his creativity. Just as O’Brien’s contemporaries in downtown New York’s No Wave’s scene rejected categorization or labels (in the spirit evoked by the “no” of their name, which they also dismissed as reductive), so too did he turn his defiance of career singularity into his calling card. It’s similarly impossible to distill the complexity of any life into an easily digestible kernel of memory; through grieving, we honor that very plurality of existence. By connecting us to an archive of memory, the Internet emphasizes the irreducibility of a life’s divergent threads. In this setting, O’Brien’s creative output can merge with the collective memory of photostreams and eulogies to enact a collaborative memorial. The resulting sprawl of media suits a life spent going against the grain.
So he did, in a quotidian vein, in his poem “Plain”:
Give me a plain.
Make it a medium plain.
No, I don’t want anything in it.
You don’t have any medium?
Only large, extra large, and jumbo?
Okay, make it a large,
but don’t fill it up all the way.
No, I don’t want to stay.
Make it a medium, plain, to go.