Freddie Mercury

Claudia La Rocco on “Fred Herko: A Crash Course”

Left: James Waring, In the Mist, 1960. Performance view, Fred Herko and Aileen Passloff. Photo: Vladimir Sladon. Right: Fred Herko dancing on the roof of the Opulent Tower, Ridge Street, New York, in 1964.

I’M NOT SURE HOW MUCH I learned about Fred Herko during “Fred Herko: A Crash Course,” a four-hour-plus symposium organized by Joshua Lubin-Levy and presented Saturday afternoon by NYU’s performance studies department and a bunch of other august orgs.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I mean, we were fed well, for starters, and anytime anyone is showing Andy Warhol films, life is good. More on those later, but the above paragraph is to say that there is a lot of misinformation and mythology out there on our dear Freddie, and people really, really, really like talking about both.

This is understandable. First, there’s the mythology, which begins with the facts, such as they are: twenty-eight-year-old gorgeous queer charismatic strung-out dancer-poet-muse-etc. involved in uptown-downtown midcentury avant-garde excitement dies by jumping/dancing/falling/stepping out of fifth-story window of Cornelia Street apartment in 1964, possibly because he thought he could fly and possibly because he intended to commit suicide and possibly because, why let physics get in the way of a good old grand jete/swan dive? It seems he bathed before dying, in a tub, maybe with perfume in it.

I mean.

And second, the people immediately able to account for what actually happened and why were artists. As in, decidedly not responsible for history. As in, maybe not even worth consulting (more on that later, also, with feeling), though they did write some pretty great poems about the situation. For instance, here’s the first stanza from Diane di Prima’s “FORMAL BIRTHDAY POEM: February 23, 1964,” when it seems the writing was already sliding down the wall in the house of Herko:

dear Freddie, it’s your birthday & you are crazy
really gone now, crazy like any other old queen
showing off your naked limbs a little withered
making fairy tales into not very good ballets

I have this poem because I have the course packet Lubin-Levy, Alan Ruiz, Kelly O’Grady, and Nova Benway edited for Crash Course, a document that includes writing by the likes of Jill Johnston, George Brecht, LeRoi Jones, and Ray Johnson, plus a nasty poem-review Herko wrote about Paul Taylor (“Paul Taylor is not ultimately beautiful”; bless you, Freddie), plus a nasty letter-response to that poem-review by Edwin Denby (“Herko had better watch his language”; bless you, Edwin), and even, delightfulness, Herko’s edited resume as a cover with his scrawl on top “SORRY—I’M SLOW—FH.” This little booklet, in other words, is perfect. Probably everything in it is inaccurate. I don’t care.

But I am not a historian. Gerard Forde is, and he is writing a biography about Herko (which will probably be great), and his opening talk, “Send Three and Fourpence, We’re Going to a Dance—Misreading Fred Herko,” was almost all about what everyone else got wrong. He took aim at a lot of people, but dance historian Sally Banes was the one who really got it, not just for what she apparently biffed on our boy but also for the whole Judson Dance Theater shebang. Speaking at a closing panel about her book (I’m not sure which book, or maybe he meant all of them, since JDT runs throughout Banes’s scholarship, though apparently I shouldn’t call it that anymore): “I just think burn the fucking thing and start over.”

Scholarly led book burning! Now we’re talkin’.

And here Forde wanted to give more JDT research credit to Johnston, thereby endearing him to me, only it seemed for others on the panel, particularly the art historian Julia Robinson, just because Johnston was there doesn’t mean she is a better source. And this of course led into the whole debate about whether people who have a firsthand stake in the game count for anything (Robinson: “And that’s a viable source, the artist documenting her own work!?”), and then the inevitable statement that history doesn’t exist anyway (Richard Move: “There’s no such thing.”), and then, most pleasurable of all, the theory versus facts knife fight, in which people’s metaphors are made to look stupid (if they haven’t made themselves look that way already through poesy and overreaching) and facts, what is it good for? The rest of the panel tried simply to maintain its dignity.

The whole thing reminded me (I mean, I wasn’t actually there) of that Jill Johnston panel when Trisha Brown stormed out and Johnston was upset until Brown reminded her that she, Johnston, had given her, Brown, the option of storming out. And here’s Johnston on panels in general, in an essay perfectly titled for this occasion, “Cultural Gangsters”: “In fact I began to think if things went right we could’ve had a gang bang on the spot without even knowing it.”

All we needed were the post-coital ciggies. That was one thing the buffet spread didn’t provide, shame on NYU—but actually no, hang on, they thought of everything, because, back to Warhol, we started the day with his magnificent Screen Test of Herko, that unbearably gorgeous face full of secrets smoking away like any old immortal.

“Fred Herko: A Crash Course” panel on October 25, 2014. Photo: Conrad Ventur.

These films are too good to be true. That’s their whole point. Same with Warhol’s Jill and Freddy Dancing (1963), Herko and Johnston swanning about on an unfinished roof, looking ravishing. Or Harlot (1965), which Marc Siegel presented in the other talk of the day, “Good Bananas, Bad Bananas and Gossip,” an exploration of fugitive histories through the drag star Mario Montez.

I agree with Siegel’s faith in gossip. (“You don’t have to believe me, even though it’s true, as is all the gossip I share.”) And I agree with Ara Osterweil, a professor of film and cultural studies at McGill University and a painter, who was one of the non-Herko experts invited to give a brief riff inspired by Herko, and said to Forde in that final panel, “The corrective impulse in your work, I found it so ungenerous.”

But also I agree with Forde that if theorists are “only recycling half-truths” their constructs will suffer from “an increasingly limited gene pool.” I mean, how many falling metaphors can you really deal with before you have to get on with your day? There were so many mentions of bodies falling. The two I kept thinking of were female, and horridly incongruous: the loud-talker who fell out the window at that party in Sex and the City, and Ana Mendieta, who we also will never know the truth about. They were both, in violently different ways, inconvenient women.

And this brings me to the woman sitting next to me, Deborah Lawlor (back then she was Lee), who danced with James Waring and with Herko and who told me that Herko lived with her for the last six months of his life “as roommates”—she stressed that point, smart girl—and who rolled her eyes when I asked what she thought of much of the talk swirling around Herko and who later pointed out, “The women speakers always go last.”

It’s true, they did: Robinson, Osterweil, Danielle Goldman, and Heather Love, crammed in after the men who, as usual, talked at leisure. Pressed for time, pressing to make their points to a tired-out audience. And now, you see, I replicate the pattern.

But let’s give a woman the last word, at least. Isabelle Fisher, a fabulously dressed elderly woman who spoke out about how all of her friends-turned–historical figures were being distorted by interpretations, when actually they weren’t in their lives fitting their work into constructs. No, “they were just doing it.” Whatever the it (forever now in question) was.