Glenn O’Brien, TV Party, Schott, and the Case of Basquiat’s Crown

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A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in a local magazine shop on 23rd street flipping through GQ’s special “Style Guy” issue.  I had wandered into the store in search of some publication from Mexico, but I soon lost sight of that upon spotting the all Glenn O’Brien issue of GQ, because let’s face it, if you can’t enjoy O’Brien’s writing, you should probably get your head checked.  Thumbing through the pages I soon stopped on a full page shot of O’Brien’s decades old Schott Perfecto.  While there’s something appealing about any worn in and worn out leather jacket, O’Brien’s left an instant impression on me for it’s one all-important addition.  Right there in the very center of his jacket was a crown, a signature that was not his own, but belonged to Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Considering how concerned everyone is these days with finding deadstock items, and keeping their clothes pristine (a belief that I am admittedly quite guilty of), the idea of defacing a piece of clothing, and thereby turning it into a piece of art was obviously intriguing to me.  As I’ve headed down the rabbit hole of seventies and eighties New York, reading stories of O’Brien, Basquiat, and the city in general, I’ve come to understand that crown as an echo of a bygone era.

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By 1978, Glenn O’Brien had been from Georgetown, to New York, to Chicago, and back again, inking his name on the mastheads of Interview, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and High Times along the way.  But then, in a crucial moment, he stepped onto the TV screen.  Dubbed “Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party” O’Brien became the host of a show on Manhattan’s public access channel, and in the eighty plus episodes that followed over the next four years, O’Brien interviewed some of the music and art world’s most legendary figures, including David Byrne, Mick Jones, Blondie, and of course Basquiat.  The TV Party years would prove to be an interesting interlude in O’Brien’s life, providing a link between his early career as a journalist and his later work as an ad-man for Barneys and a slew of other clients, before returning to writing in the late twentieth century as “The Style Guy” for GQ.

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“TV Party” was a low-budget smattering of orchestral cacophonies, interviews between friends, random moments of dead air, and inexplicable titles.  Yet at the same time, it was brilliant, funny, informative, and pretty much stands as a time capsule of the New York punk and art scenes at the time.  It’s as if O’Brien and his guests felt like they were really getting away with something by doing the show, so there’s this constant back and forth between trying to figure out when to be serious and when to just revel in the absurdity.   I feel like that sort of spirit is what that whole era of New York was really based upon.  It was a bunch of teenage kids and twenty-somethings that had somehow become cool, so they were given all this attention and they just collectively just decided to run with it.  Like Interview Magazine to the nth degree, where the context of the interview was often far more important than the interview itself, “TV Party” gave some of the city’s most creative minds a platform and in return got some pretty remarkable moments of vulnerability, imagination, and insight.

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Which brings me back to Basquiat’s crown.  The years surrounding TV Party represent a time period that modern menswear (at least of my set) seems fairly unconcerned with.  To be honest it’s tough for me to find any fault with that on a surface level, as for the time being I’m pretty satisfied with us not returning to babydoll Disney tees, and torn up skinny jeans.  Yet, there was a attitude behind this era that we can all take from.  It’s not an obvious comparison, but the same way trads have their uniform, which acts as a crucial part of their culture, so did the punks and artists of this scene.  There was a power in their leather jackets and second-hand pieces that’s really tough to overstate, as it instantly coded them as a part of this scene.

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And yet when everyone wears practically the same jacket, how do you set yourself apart?  This is a question that fascinates me, especially considering how monosyllabic things can feel in my small menswear scope these days.  O’Brien asking Basquiat to draw a crown on his back was as much about him attempting to stand out as it was a nod to their friendship, and that’s one of those crucial moments that’s bigger than clothes, when a mere jacket becomes far more than just leather and stitches.  I’m far from saying that we should all run out and get our sportcoats inked by anyone we can find, but we should consider the value of a jacket beyond price.  As most of us know, O’Brien would go on to clean up and become heralded as one of the world’s best dressed men, but no matter what he will forever have that Schott Perfecto with his friend’s art on the back hanging in his closet.  It’s a physical representation of memories from a time long since gone, and that’s something we should all keep in mind, as it’s those rare few pieces that take on greater meaning in us that we actually remember at the end of the day.  After all, what good is a jacket that you’ll keep for years to come if it’s not really yours?

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