BAD DAY MAGAZINE
ISSUE 9, FALL, 2010
Since his not-so-humble beginnings as the editor of Interview in 1970, Glenn OíBrien has maintained a Zelig-like presence in popular culture at-large. Through his many different jobs as filmmaker, creative director, TV host, art critic, music columnist, style guru and magazine editor, OíBrien hasnít so much kept on the pulse of the moment; heís actually helped shape it. Whether behind the scenes, working on the sidelines, or center stage, OíBrien has exercised humour, intelligence and charmóqualities that have become his signature style.
Asher Penn: I wanted to start off by asking: whatís your job right now?
Glenn OíBrien: Well, Iíve always had a lot of jobs going on at the same time. It always seemed to be the only way for me to survive. Not that Iím just surviving, but when I started working with Brant publications, I didnít give anything up. I have a column in GQ. I have a weekly column in Italian Vanity Fair. Iím running the Bergdorf Goodman magazineóthe first one just came out. Iím writing a book and itís almost done. I do a lot of commercial stuff, advertising and branding.
Asher: So youíre still doing art direction for advertising?
Glenn: Well itís more like creative direction. Iím putting together a new fragrance and I just worked on naming the new product fragrance. I do a lot of stuff like that.
Asher: Whatís the book youíve been working on?
Glenn: Well, I always wanted to do a book in the Style Guy persona, you know. But I didnít want it to be like a regular advice book or just a bunch of Q&As. Itís called How To Be A Man. Itís sort of a funny philosophy book, with a little bit of behaviour and styling advice thrown in. Advice books are big for some reason, maybe because nobody knows what to do. I have advice on travel, cell phones, email, all these weird details of life. Then there are parts that are more like me ranting about cursing, violence. Fame.
Asher: The Style Guy persona, is it you?
Glenn: Yeah, pretty much. But the thing is, I sort of fell into that, just like I fell into advertising, I never thought about being involved in fashion. Most of the things that have happened to me just happened while I was planning on doing something else.
Asher: What was the something else?
Glenn: Well, Iíve always been interested in filmmaking and other kinds of writing. Iíve written a bunch of screenplays, only one of which has been produced, Downtown 81. But then I started doing advertising in 1986 and I was sort of working as a stand-up comedian at the time, not that I planned for that to take me to the top. But you know, that was something I was doing. And I was doing a lot of art writing, which I still do.
Asher: I was always really amazed that you were the one behind the Calvin Klein campaign of the Ď90s with Richard Avedon.
Glenn: Thatís actually the only one that I was not behind. I did almost everything for a long time. Avedon, he was in charge of his own stuffóhe always worked with Doon Arbus. So I did work on that campaign, but all I did was fix it.
Asher: What do you mean fix it?
Glenn: I mean after they shot it and edited it, Calvin wasnít happy so he wanted me to fix it. Like, I rewrote some of the copy.
Asher: Were these the television ads?
Glenn: Yeah. I did a lot of work with Steven Meisel. Like, I did the child pornography campaign that Bill Clinton was up in arms about. We got investigated by the Justice Department.
Asher: Was that the one with Bijou Phillips?
Glenn: Yeah, Bijou was actually the only person who was underage. And we were really careful not to have Bijou talk about anything sexy.
Asher: She talked about horses.
Glenn: Yeah, but the other ones were pretty far out. Thatís one of my favourite bunch of commercials that I ever did, with Stephen Meisel. It was funny because Stephen had been watching this cable TV show, this gay-porn TV show with this guy in it who was a really gnarly personality. And so, he was the guy quizzing these kidsó
Asher: Oh, he was the guy in the ads?
Glenn: Yeah, we used him and his voice. He and I were sitting together, you know, quizzing these people. We knew what we wanted to talk about but it wasnít scripted so they didnít know what we were going to ask them. So, we did that and this guy was really out of control. He reeked of alcohol, he was all in leather. He was really a freak. The guy had been putting his hand on my leg and it was really weird. So we took him out of it, and then I had to go back and do a dialogue replacement, I had to loop all these commercials with another voice, with an actor. And it was really difficult because everyone was stepping on everyone elseís lines. But it turned out great, I thought. It was really good. Then I did the CK1 campaign, Eternity, with Christy Turlington. Contradiction, the Marky Mark campaign. That was Herb Ritts and Kate. Kate Moss.
Asher: I wanted to ask you about your interviewing style. Iíve always felt that you come off as being more like a talk show host than a journalist.
Glenn: In which context?
Asher: In print.
Glenn: In print?
Glenn: I donít know, itís funny because I think Interview was started in the year that the cassette tape was introduced by Sony. So before 1970, recorded interviews were not a common part of journalism. There was the Playboy interview and the Rolling Stone interview. And then, I think, Interview kind of created a style, which was one that left in what the other magazines wouldíve cut out. So it was sort of more like a real conversation and less like a news conference. I think that Andy Warhol was really influential in establishing that kind of interview. To me the interview is a really great form because journalists are often full of shit, you know. Theyíre just presenting their own point of view, which is totally legit, but nobody says, ďWait a second.Ē And the genius of the interview is itís like the dialogue, the dialogue of Plato. Where I think you have more of a chance to get to the truth because you have a prosecution and a defense. Itís like a debate, or it could be. And, I think thatís why I love the format of the conversation.
Asher: Are you a talk-show fan in general? You did TV Party and there was a talk show element.
Glenn: Yeah, but TV Party wasnít Charlie Rose, you know? It wasnít that focused. It was a little out of focus. I grew up on The Tonight Show, which in the beginning was with Jack Paar, and that was a lot different from the Johnny Carson style of show, which was also great. But it was really much more conversational and less celebrity-oriented. A lot of the great Jack Paar shows were people who werenít that famous but were great talkers, so youíd have Oscar Levant, Jack Douglas, this woman Genevieve who was this crazy French woman who had such a thick accent you couldnít understand what she was saying. And heíd have celebrities too, but you know, Paar set this incredible standard. But now, the ones that are on the air, I donít really like that much. Thereís none that I really want to watch. If Charlie Rose has someone really good on, I like it. Heís a really smart guy. I love Jimmy Kimmell too. Heís so funny.
Asher: I like it when Don Rickles goes on Jimmy Kimmell.
Glenn: Don Rickles did some of the greatest Tonight Shows with Johnny Carson, ever. And some of the best Carson shows were actually hosted by Jerry Lewis, because every year Carson would go on vacation and Jerry Lewis would take over the show for two weeks. And he was like, out of control. It was really anarchic for network television.
Asher: When you were doing TV Party were you taking notes watching talk shows or anything?
Glenn: No, I didnít even watch TV then.The only TV I would ever watch during the TV Party years was probably like, Yankees baseball. Sometimes I would watch Mary Tyler Moore at four oíclock in the morning when I came home from, like, clubs. I was always a big fan of comedy. But I like the old school comics.
Asher: Do you like any contemporary comics?
Glenn: Yeah, yeah. Chris Rock is the greatest, I think. Heís my favourite. But I grew up on these kind of Borscht Belt guys. I started doing comedy in Ď82 after TV Party ended and I just kind of had this yen, you know, to do some sort of performance. I had this album called BS Pully: Fairytales, and BS Pully was this Brooklyn, Jewish comedian who spent almost all of his life at the racetrack and hung out with the Rat Pack. He was in Guys & Dolls, and in one movie, he punches Frank Sinatra in the stomach. But he was this really hard-boiled, dirty comic. I found this record of his that I loved and so I learned the entire act and performed it, one night only at two oíclock in the morning at Danceteria. And I didnít think anything would come of itóit was a like a little art project. So I wore a tux, did the accent, smoked a cigar. After the show, David Johansen came up to me from the audience and said, ďIím putting together a lounge act and youíre going to open for me.Ē He was starting his Buster Poindexter thing, which was this kind of lounge-lizard who wore a tux and drank a lot of martinis. I was his opening act for three and a half years.
Asher: Do you remember any of the jokes?
Glenn: Oh yeah.
Asher: Can you tell any of them?
Glenn: Maybe later. They were really bad. I mean, that was kind of the aesthetic. I started out doing BS Pully but then I would steal material from a lot of other comics of that period from these old records. After six months, I just ran out of stuff to steal so I just started writing my own stuff. It was really fun and it actually kind of got me on my feet financially.
Asher: Being funny?
Glenn: Or being not-funny. The Hellís Angels thought I was funny. That was really scary because they liked Davidís act and would come and see us at Trampís. I went out drinking after the show, it was like, ďTiny thought you were really funny and he doesnít think anythingís funny.Ē
Asher: Did you meet Tiny?
Glenn Oh, yeah. They asked us to do their annual party once and it was on a boat. I said, ďWe canít do this, weíre going to die. What if they think Iím not funny. Iíll be in the New York harbor.Ē
Asher: Has it ever been difficult to let go of a job?
Glenn: Well, yeah. I was really enjoying doing Interview, so that was kind of traumatic, just recently. I like editing magazines. But, nobodyís called me up to edit one since. [Laughs]
Asher: In the past Iíve read things where youíve mentioned, ďMy old boss Andy Warhol,Ē I always wondered about that.
Glenn: Yeah, we used to call him ďthe boss.Ē
Asher: Was he your first boss?
Glenn: No, because Iíve always had a job, since I was sixteen. He was my first boss in any worthwhile endeavor. Itís funny because somebody sent me a questionnaire last week and one question was, ďWhat was the worst job youíve ever had?Ē And it took me a long time to think about that because Iíve had so many horrible jobs when I was young. Working for Andy was a dream job. I think we all really learned a lot from him because he was really smart and overflowing with insight. He had a really nice way with management. He would sort of tell you what to do and then make you feel as if it were your own idea. I was editing Interview but I was also the art director, and one night I was laying it out in the middle of the night and the typesetters went home. I really needed a headline and I took an IBM typewriter and blew it up on a photostat machine. I think that was the first time anyone ever used blown-up typewriter as a font. When the magazine came out Andy said, ďOh thatís really great, we should do that with every headline.Ē I knew he was really telling me that I was using too many typefaces, but he was also flattering me at the same timeóan interesting way of handling people. He would hardly ever get mad or anything like that. He was very lenient.
Asher: So if there was a mistake it would turn into a good idea?
Glenn: Well, that wasnít really a mistake. That was improvisation. We were like amateur kids so a lot of things went wrong. Andy was very tolerant and if he thought you were good then he gave you a lot of lea-way. He never looked at the magazine until after it came back from the printer. There were very few incidents if things went wrong, and if they did it was more with Paul Morrissey than Andy.
Asher: You started editing Interview at the age of twenty-two?
Asher: And then you edited it for how many years?
Glenn: Four years.
Asher: I mean, that must have been an incredible experience.
Glenn: Yeah, yeah. It was unbelievable that I fell into that position.
Asher: How did that effect things afterward?
Glenn: Well I started out on the top and worked my way down. No, I donít know, if I had a flaw, as a creative person at the time, I think it was that maybe I was a little full of myself at a certain point. Because I really felt I knew what I was doing and it was hard to get me to deviate from that. I was very willful.
Asher: Has there been a moment where youíve kind of had to really compromise? Are you still willful?
Glenn: Well, I wasnít very compromising in a way. Iím sure there are people who think Iím like the biggest sell-out of all time. There were plenty of times when I wouldnít write something when I didnít think [the job] was good. I was a temporary typist around the time I was doing TV Party. I would do temp work because I wanted to do what I wanted to do. When I was out of money after I left Interview, I had gone to work for Rolling Stone and that was really a bad experience. So when I was behind in my rent and I had a new baby and all this stuff, I was good friends with Alice Cooper and his manager owned a bar. I said, ďWhy donít you let me tend bar there,Ē because I was an experienced bartender. So I worked as a bartender in New York for several months, and, man, people were really mean about it.
Asher: What do you mean?
Glenn: So, like, one night, this guy came in. This guy who wrote the Sergeant Pepperís movie, one of the worst movies ever made. He came in and said, ďOh, Glenn OíBrien, how the mighty have fallen!Ē And I lept across the bar. [Laughs]
Asher: With the number of things you do it sounds almost like you kind of enjoy not having a fixed job.
Glenn: I think itís good for someone like me to do more than one thing. But I did like having a job. Like a main job. When you reach a certain age, itís a little bit undignified to be a freelancer. I know that sounds funny but itís something that I think about.
Asher: What do you do in your personal time? Or is that÷ personal?
Glenn: I spend a lot of time with my family. We have a country house, we go up every weekend. I read a lot, play a little bridge.
Asher: Your writing is really accessible. I havenít read a piece of yours where I felt myself nodding off for whatever reason.
Glenn: I think thatís what writing should be. I mean, thatís kind of my unfulfilled ambition, what I had been thinking about for the last year or so. I like doing magazines and I was thinking for a long time about how it would be great do to a plain language art magazine. I donít like jargon and I donít like pretentious writing. I get mad when I read press releases from galleries; it sort of taints the art world, in a way, because itís such a low standard of writing. So much of the art writing is so pretentious and I guess itís something that people pick up, but usually the difficulty of the writing is more of a disguise for the lack of content than anything else. Difficult prose is a very modern thing. You know, if you read Nietzsche, itís really pleasurable. If you read Voltaire, youíre laughing out loud sometimes, you know? Then you read Artforum and itís like, ďWhat the fuck is this guy talking about?Ē And I donít think anyone reads it. I really donít think anyone reads it.
Asher: Whatís the difference between menís and womenís fashion?
Glenn: Well I mean now there is menís fashion. But the thing about men is that itís more about style than fashion. Because men donít want to change, they want it to be their style and thatís it, I think. Fashion dictates and style is really about the person.
Asher: So are you somewhere in-between the two?
Glenn: Iím not so into fashion. I mean everything Iím wearing now I wouldíve worn thirty years ago.
Asher: Will you tell me one of your jokes now?
Glenn: Okay. Thereís a priest, a minister and a rabbi and they go out and play golf. They play three, four holes and around the sixth hole they come across these guys who are really, really slow. Theyíre standing there on the tee and these guys are on the green, putting for fifteen minutes. They start waving their arms and yelling, ďHello!Ē Nothing happens. So they drag around the course and finally after the ninth hole they go into the clubhouse, go see the pro and say, ďYou know, we hate to complain but there were these very slow golfers on the course today.Ē And the pro says, ďOh your reverence, Iím so sorry that we didnít tell you but we have blind golfers on the course today.Ē The priest says, ďOh, glory be to God, Jesus Christ. Iím so sorry I have been so uncharitable.Ē And the minister says, ďBlind golfers, I think I have the theme for next Sundayís sermon: Ďalways anticipate the problems of the other.íĒ And the rabbi says, ďBlind golfers? Canít they play at night?Ē
Asher: Okay, thatís good.
Glenn: I think I better go home.