This Ain’t No Mudd Club

Photo: Antonin Kratochvil/VII

‘My name is Eric Bogosian, and I used to live in this building 33 years ago, in the very, very top. Have you been to the top? The little, tiny room? I painted that room.” The twentysomething ticket-seller behind the box-office glass of the Westside Theatre—a deconsecrated church on West 43rd Street—looks cheerful if slightly stunned by the rat-a-tat baritone outside her booth. “That’s crazy,” she says. Maybe she recognizes those curly black locks (now white-flecked at the temples) and intense green-gray eyes, or maybe she’s just being polite. Most likely she knows him from his role as Danny Ross on NBC’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent, since the sweaty, angry monologues that made him downtown-famous in the eighties are about as old as she is. She certainly has no idea what has brought him here: Bogosian’s third novel, Perforated Heart, in which a jaded author rediscovers some ancient journals, not unlike Bogosian’s own diaries, chronicling life in the rogue state of seventies New York.

Inside the theater, Westside’s operations manager gladly leads a tour of the old garret, now an office with a new window and coat of paint, though Bogosian happily notes the original wainscoting and gabled ceiling. “Smoking weed in a place like this—when you’re all alone, late at night, this neighborhood was definitely whacked out,” he says in a near whisper, as though telling an urban ghost story. “A wicked, dangerous neighborhood—full-tilt boogie.” He remembers the sound of hooker fights drifting up from the street—trannies versus naturals. “Three holes are better than two!” they’d shout. Twice more he says he was the first person to paint the room—“I don’t know why I keep mentioning that.” The 56-year-old Bogosian—perhaps the most self-analytical non-Jew in town—knows what he looks like. “This is probably the last time I should do this,” he says. “I’m starting to feel like an old guy—‘Yeah, in the old days, we used to …’ ”

He banters awkwardly with the manager. Turns out they worked together on the actor’s last monologue show, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, in 2000. (“I should have known who he was,” Bogosian says later.) It was his sixth in a string of pioneering multicharacter shows, including the award-winning Drinking in America, that paved the way for later monologuists like Sarah Jones and Danny Hoch. Talk Radio, one of his two hit full-length plays, was nominated for a Pulitzer. But Wake Up may have been the end of that line.

“A sad ending for me,” says Bogosian. “I was supposed to run four months, and I did two. It was a good show.” He trails off in the manner of someone who knows when to move on, but not quite how to let go. Being known as Mr. Monologue was never part of his plan, but being known for something—that’s another story.

Down in Tribeca dungeons like the Mudd Club and Tier 3, where, in 1979, disco was giving way to punk and the first stirrings of No Wave, a character named Ricky Paul figured out a different way to get under people’s skin, using nothing but words. Lenny Bruce by way of Johnny Rotten, Paul spewed sexist humor and incoherent paranoia before an audience reared on sixties bromides. He wore a porkpie hat and a ratty blazer stained with food and spit, courtesy of said audience. (One Boston crowd near-rioted when he opened for the band Mission of Burma). A few onlookers got it, though—young artists (and friends) like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo who understood he wasn’t angry, he was doing angry, and they thought it was hilarious.

To figure out exactly why Eric Bogosian decided to become Ricky Paul, it helps to look at the journal entries of the young Richard Morris, Perforated Heart’s restless, rangy writer. Between episodes of sex, drinking, and drugs, Morris makes a lunging stab at an artistic manifesto: “I have to energize my writing, like the music over at Max’s Kansas City. Like a machine gun. Blam-blam-blam. My writing must be lethal … Real people don’t think, they talk and they act. Without knowing why they talk and act.” The Ricky Paul Show was as aggressive as the bands playing CBGB, as uninhibited as the freewheeling dancers over in Robert Wilson’s loft, just a block from where Bogosian worked at the Kitchen.

And from the start it was, of course, an act. Bogosian was never as volatile as his raving stage persona. “Looking at these old videos and what a real geek I was, whatever I was pretending to be or thought I was, at the end of the day what I really am is a very bookish guy,” says Bogosian, who left the University of Chicago for Oberlin partly because of the rampant crime. Today, married with two kids, he is not among the aging liberals who prefer the old New York to the new. “I’m scared of that stuff. And yet, when I was a kid, there were guys in my hometown who were semi-dangerous, and I tried to hang out with them as much as I could.”

Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

But even then, Bogosian—already writing plays—was courting danger for the material as much as the adrenaline. Those hometown guys—from working-middle-class Woburn, Massachusetts—would ride in to Cambridge, ten miles away, to beat up Harvard students, but Bogosian would beg off those trips, then go in on his own to hang with the hippies. “One looks back and tries to make it a much more difficult experience,” says theater producer Fred Zollo, a childhood friend who later put up some of Bogosian’s first plays and directed Talk Radio. “Eric knew a few of the more unsavory characters, but by the standard of anyone who’s grown up in the Bronx, it wasn’t that unsavory.”

Once in New York, Bogosian, like the young Morris, dove right in. He’d buy heroin on the Lower East Side, catch a midnight peep show in Times Square, walk through Central Park alone, then close out the night in a gay disco. But he drew the line—“chickened out”—at a gay bathhouse. “It seemed to me there was a good possibility of catching something in that place,” he says. “I didn’t like the humidity.”

Bogosian met Jo Bonney in 1980, when she hired him to do an animation voice-over for $75. Six weeks later, they were married at City Hall, and she went on to direct many of his plays. “I never thought he’d make a living,” says Bonney. “That whole side of him, the dependable, loyal part, was not a given. It was the other part that I was attracted to.”

He quit drugs and alcohol in 1984, not just to get healthy but to get ahead. “I was living on Elizabeth Street and I was 30 years old and I was a poor person on drugs and nothing was happening,” he says, which wasn’t precisely true: Frank Rich had already taken note of his solo shows, including a rave about 1983’s Funhouse, at the Public Theater, and things were starting to change—though not fast enough for Bogosian. Kate Kuper, a dancer he’d dated when he lived up in the attic, left New York for a few years, and by the time she came back, Bogosian was a downtown scenester—darker, she remembers, and more driven. “He was frustrated that all of these friends of his had already made a name for themselves,” says Kuper. “He was saying, ‘When is my time gonna come?’ ”

Bogosian’s monologues channeled the despair of a city in seemingly permanent decline. All the bums and junkies and goombahs he’d overheard from his rattrap apartment came menacingly alive for theatergoers terrified of the real thing. His 1987 play Talk Radio, in which he starred as a shock jock both onstage and in Oliver Stone’s film version, foretold the bread and circuses of Howard Stern and cable news. It also brought him to the precipice of fame. He was able to stand there, teetering, through his second full-length hit, subUrbia, which became a Richard Linklater film with music by Sonic Youth (Bogosian’s old Soho friends) just in time for slackermania. For anyone closely following the culture, circa 1994, Eric Bogosian was looking like a minor prophet.

It still wasn’t enough for him. Talk Radio was supposed to make him a movie star, and it didn’t. He developed a sideline in doctored scripts and pilots. Both in interviews and on his website (he may have been the first celebrity blogger), he alternately blamed himself and the system. From a typical post, in July 1997, about independent film: “Am I complaining? How can I? I’ve ‘starred’ in an action film [as the villain in Under Siege 2]. And I would have liked nothing better than for subUrbia to have become a hit. In fact, sadly, on some gut level, I only understand its success in monetary terms. This is my loss.”

In 1986, Frank Rich had labeled Bogosian a “downtown fixture for almost a decade”; a decade later, he still was. But the city had moved on, and a protean performer who’d expertly nailed the Zeitgeist—channeled it through his body before live audiences—was fixed to an era gone by.

On another leg of our Young Bogosian tour, we stumble upon the epicenter of downtown cool, 2009 edition. “This is Rivington Street,” Bogosian announces, “and this block was a drug supermarket.” The young Morris scores here in Perforated Heart, and so did Bogosian. While marveling at some shooting galleries turned beer gardens, he backs up against Freemans Sporting Club, the pseudo-ironic boutique in Taavo Somer’s hipster fiefdom. “This guy used to be on 13th Street, didn’t he?” asks Bogosian. I tell him I don’t think so. He checks with the salesman inside, a dapper, freshly showered youngster with a neat beard.

“How long have you been here?” asks Bogosian.

“Two years.”

“Oh, you have a barbershop?”

“Yeah, and a restaurant down the alley.”

Bogosian takes a beat to assimilate all this, like some cool dad doing a generational translation in his head: Irony! He grows a hint of smirk and says, “All really cool, right? A really cool place?”

“Yeah, you know,” says the youngster, returning the smirk. “Really, really hip.”

The mystery of Richard Morris, the embittered, Philip Rothian novelist in Perforated Heart, is what happened between the raw, naïve seventies journals and the cynical musings of the older writer who calls those diaries “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Idiot.” Bogosian, in between the many espressos he gulps in his spacious Tribeca-loft office (downstairs from his spacious Tribeca-loft home), seems to ask himself much the same question every day: Who was that guy, and what ever happened to him?

Among Bogosian’s many artistic infatuations—conveyed in speeches as rambling as his old monologues—is the mid-career crisis that led Philip Roth to write Sabbath’s Theater. Roth took it hard when Operation Shylock went nowhere. “He really wanted that book to be the book,” says Bogosian. But then came Sabbath’s Theater, “a big Fuck You book. It’s just spitting venom. From that point on, once he cuts himself loose from giving a shit what anyone thinks about him, he begins to win awards.”

Perforated Heart is Bogosian’s version of that crisis, as filtered through his own blend of impersonation, identification, and wish fulfillment. He went through much the same thing, but worse—because unlike a novel, a play has to be staged before it even has the chance to fail. His 1998 play Griller was panned in Chicago and never made it to New York. “I got a little pissed off with the theater world,” he says. That same year, he took publisher David Rosenthal to a Yankees game, during which he groused about how many awful novels get published. Rosenthal said if he felt that way, he should write one himself. So Bogosian came up with Mall, a novel about a violent suburban rampage. It was a quieter Fuck You than Roth’s, but a Fuck You nonetheless, directed not so much at the lunkheads in Middle America as at the ones who ran Off Broadway. “They want to hear a workshop production of your play,” he says. “Five shows that worked, isn’t that enough evidence that you don’t need to hear it? Just fucking do the work! In the book world, nobody has said dick to me about what I’m writing, because they don’t really know what makes a book work.”

“Whatever I was pretending to be or thought I was, at the end of the day what I really am is a very bookish guy.”

Perforated Heart finally allowed him to pour out those emotions. “I have written five novels,” the older Morris writes in the book, “but I will forever be a ‘renowned writer of short stories, one of which was adapted as a film, directed by Paul Schrader.’ Read: ‘not a major talent; negligible; a clown.’ ” Later, on a humiliatingly short book tour, Morris reads mostly for old fans. “No one seemed to have any interest in my more recent work,” he moans. “It was as if I were there as a representative of my former self.”

Those last lines were written in 2007, when Talk Radio was revived starring Liev Schreiber. It should have been a personal vindication—finally, Bogosian on Broadway! “People were going, ‘Hey, that’s a great play.’ But I didn’t write that play; this other guy wrote it, 25 years ago. I have a play I wrote last year. I wish that were being produced.”

But this is where Bogosian diverges from Morris, and Roth too. In his calmer moods, he wonders if it isn’t all for the best. “As a theater artist, I’d like to see more of my work done, but I would actually rather see more of Adam Rapp’s stuff. Let’s find out what the new things are.” He speaks more grimly of the aging artist: “The passage-of-time business—the guy that’s in his mid-fifties thinking, ‘Do I have the energy I used to? The acuity, the imagination? Was I thinking in big, bold ways that I don’t think anymore?’ I can’t tell, I don’t know. The truth is, the best stuff usually happens between 30 and 40.”

Bogosian still writes plays, and there’s Law & Order. But while many of his artist contemporaries (Robert Wilson, Kim Gordon, Sherman, and Longo) continue to command money and respect for the kind of work that made them famous, Bogosian sloughs off his younger self. “I don’t really have the soul of a performer,” he says. “I saw David Byrne at Radio City recently, and I hope I don’t have to get in front of audiences at 60 years old. I mean, fuck that shit!”

Looking out over those audiences as Ricky Paul, Bogosian saw his future not in the masses but in his peers—not the 40 people spitting on him but the four artist friends in on the joke. Somehow, recognition followed. Is it too much to hope that it might happen again? “When I’m writing, I’m not thinking, what does my editor think, what are millions of people thinking? I’m thinking, what’s Richard Price—a friend of mine—gonna think? What is John Casey gonna think, or Jerry Stahl? Then I get the audience in my mind.”

Of course, Ricky Paul was a mess, and even David Rosenthal, still his publisher, concedes that Bogosian the Novelist is a work-in-progress. “If I thought [Mall] would be the last book he ever wrote, it would have been of less interest to me,” he says. “He’s becoming a novelist.”

Bogosian is already deep into his fourth novel. A detailed map of Turkey stretches across one door in his office; in another room are shelves full of books about the Armenian genocide. As one of the country’s better-known Armenian-Americans, he intends to write the Great Armenian Novel. “I want to fully utilize what’s been happening with new fiction over the last twenty years,” he says excitedly, “whether it’s Sebald or David Foster Wallace, where you can footnote and hang different trajectories into a million different … I don’t tell the story in a linear way. It’s so ambitious. I don’t know if I can fucking do it.”

So far, his two books have sold 25,000 copies, total—disappointing for someone with what publishers call a “platform.” But novels are not plays. Novels last forever. You don’t have to be Philip Roth; you can be Roberto Bolaño. You can die without ever knowing your impact. “I am hanging my emotional well-being on it,” he says. “It’s just that I’m doing it in my own secret way. I think any serious writer feels that no matter what level of success you have in your present work, someday people will really see what’s going on.”

A Journey Through New York, Narrated by Bogosian

A Journey Through New York, Narrated by Bogosian

A Journey Through New York, Narrated by Bogosian

This Ain’t No Mudd Club