For longtime underground music fanatics, stumbling upon rare, vintage film footage of classic bands has always an exciting endeavor. And even the numbing barrage of easily accessible clips from old bands that clog YouTube, Vimeo, etc., has made the finding of truly rare footage of underground acts that much more enticing—though perhaps wrecking the potential, myth-inducing mystery of newer bands from here on out. Dude, I’m glad you just posted the seventeenth show of your friend’s band on your Tumblr, but you know anyone who’s got any Suicide from 1979? Witness Emily Armstrong and Pat Ivers.
These two charming women should be cast into statues for the front lawn of the “Thank God They Were Around Museum” that’s yet to be built next to the Smithsonian. In the late ’70s, Armstrong and Ivers were cable access staffers and punk rock scenesters who dragged their primitive cameras around now-famed dives of the original NYC punk era and filmed endless hours of bands, fans, weirdos, etc. They soon turned their hobby into the legendary cable access show, “Nightclubbing,” then transformed that into a groundbreaking video DJing gig at the infamous NYC club, Danceteria. But by 1982, Armstrong and Ivers packed their tapes away for years, only presenting scant showings, until finally in 2012, a great man from NYU came along to digitize it all and store it for posterity in The Downtown Collection at the Fales Library on NYU’s camapus.
The Bobst Library at NYU has been hosting the fantastic “GoNightclubbing Video Lounge” installation at NYU’s Bobst Library, featuring many of the video clips and rare photos and ephemera from Armstrong and Ivers’ collection. On opening night of the exhibition, I caught up with Armstrong and Ivers to get the Nightclubbing narrative.
Where did you both grow up, and how did you meet?
Pat Ivers: I grew up in Philadelphia.
Emily Armstrong: And I grew up on Long Island.
Ivers: We worked at public access cable together.
Armstrong: It was called Manhattan Cable Television then, and the public access department was a new thing then. Pat worked in production, she did videotaping and editing and stuff. And I worked in the administration, public access scheduling, helping people do their shows, stuff like that.
So, you’re working together and then you realize that you like going out to the same bars, etc.?
Ivers: Well I’d started videotaping in 1975 with a bunch of other guys, before I met Emily. In ‘74 I saw Patti Smith for the first time, and Television at Max Kansas City. And I said, “I really want to do something with this.” So there were these six other guys, and we formed this group called Metropolis Video. And we shot bands like the Talking Heads and Blondie and all these bands and people, and we did that for a year.
So the reel-to-reel machines you used were what, like, 10 pounds each?
Ivers: About eight pounds. Later, like when I shot [most of the “Nightclubbing” stuff], those cameras were like 25 pounds. I mean they were like carrying around a little Buick.
Armstrong: Those were the new color cameras.
Stereo sound on these?
Armstrong: Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “stereo.” There were two channels. We usually had a line from the board, and then we’d have an ambient mic in the room.
For for the sound guys, a notoriously grumpy bunch, I would imagine this was still relatively new to see two people prance into a bar with this big equipment. Were sound guys cool with it?
Armstrong: Well we all were friends.
Ivers: Yeah we would make friends with them, and the CBGB guys especially were great.
Armstrong: And in the beginning, most of the taping we did was at CBGB’s. Pat worked with Metropolis Video, but they soon stopped, and I met Pat at Manhattan Cable, where we worked on cable access programming. I was super into music too. So she took me down to CB’s and I said, “Thank god!” See, I was lucky enough when I was young to be able to see the Beatles at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, the Rolling Stones at a 2:30 in the afternoon matinee because my mom wouldn’t let me go to the evening one. But music got really bad for awhile, before the punk stuff.
Where was that Stones show?
Armstrong: At the Academy of Music. And this was in 7th and 8th grade. And then you know I got into the Grateful Dead, and of course I was a hippie, and then it got really bad. But finally, Pat and I went to CB’s, and it was really alive and so exciting and everything. So the people at CBGB’s did our sound for us. They had a small mixer, they mixed a little separate mix for us and then we put that into our tapes.
You must’ve had stories where someone tripped on one and pulled it out, some drunk guy.
Armstrong: Oh yeah, there were a couple of shoots where we found out afterwards that we had no sound. But eventually Hilly [Kristal, CBGB owner] let us run some cables across the ceiling.
Ivers: Hilly was a mensch. He was the best, a great guy!
Armstrong: But we basically came in every night with our equipment, and left every night with our equipment. Giant video decks in handle cases on wheels, it was no joke. We could barely fit it into a cab, if we could afford one. And then we started shooting a little bit at other clubs, a little bit Hurrah’s, a little bit at Mudd Club, a little bit at Max’s…
Ivers: And we lived in walk-ups. We lived in the same building—she’s on the fourth floor I’m on the third floor. We still live there.
So Metropolis Video started in 1975, right? So where is all the footage from that venture?
Ivers: We still have it all. They decided the “best thing to do” was to sell it to a company that was going to supposedly sell it to like a million people and make all this money for us.
What year would that have been?
Ivers: Uh, that was just last year.
Ivers: Yeah, I know. So it’s just sitting there, somewhere. It was just six people, and I was outvoted.
Armstrong: It’s available, we used to show some of that footage a lot, but we kind of stopped showing it.
Ivers: So anyway, that was all ’75, then they basically said, “You’re crazy, we’re not making any money doing this,” and they broke it up.
So you guys both still live in the same walk-ups as back then?
Armstrong: Pat lives downstairs from me. When I first moved to Manhattan I lived on East 10th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. That was like ’71, I guess.
Ivers: Oddly enough, we lived on the same block but didn’t know each other. She lived on one end of the block, I lived on the other, and Patti Smith was in the middle. So we’d both see her, sitting on her stoop.
Did you ever talk to her or anything?
Ivers: Oh no. She was intimidating, she was Patti Smith. She was like kind of a big deal around town. That was when I was 19, and Patti Smith was like 23. And at that age, that age difference seems much larger.
And where were the offices for Manhattan Cable located?
Armstrong: On 23rd Street. Remember, when we worked there, they were very cutting edge. They were using portable video technology, this was the beginning of the portable video revolution. So Pat and I would also help tape community board meetings, news stuff, and other things, not just late night music stuff. So we were really aware that we could grab the stuff and go. And at the beginning, we had the keys to the joint. We would just go and take the equipment from the public access department, it was just sitting there.
Ivers: And the transmission department was in there 24 hours a day, so they were like our co-conspirators or sympathizers. We would sneak in with our keys, take the equipment out, film stuff at clubs, strike the set at like 4 o’clock in the morning, take all the equipment back, and then go to sleep for three hours before going back to our jobs.
Armstrong: I used to say, “Like an hour and forty-five minutes of sleep, that’s pretty good.” But then we bought our own equipment. We bought a color camera.
So, who was the first band you guys filmed?
Armstrong: The first band we taped was the Dead Boys, because we loved them. They were the best American punk rock band. They are so underrated.
Ivers: It was insane, every Dead Boys show was insane. It was a multiple cameras shoot so we had three cameras there. And a fight broke out in the crowd. I was directing it, and at one point I look over and fists were flying. Stiv [Bators, singer] jumps off the stage into the fight, and basically stopped the fight. Then the roadie picked him up and threw him back on the stage.
Where there any bands that didn’t want you recording them?
Ivers: Yeah, Television and Talking Heads. But Television especially, they were really against being filmed. We had sweet-talked them, but then at the last minute, literally right before they started to play, Tom Verlaine came over and said no. Patti [Smith] was that way too, she didn’t want to be videotaped. Patti’s old manager, who is now friends with us, said the biggest mistake she ever made was not saying yes to us back then, and not overriding Patti or trying to talk her into it. She said it breaks her heart to this day.
Was there any time you liked the show so much that you just wanted to throw your stuff down and run up and enjoy the band?
Armstrong: Well for me, you can tell when I’m falling in love with a band as I’m shooting them. I was sort of in love with every band I shot.
Ivers: And we were always really up close anyway, as close as you could get to the stage usually.
Name off a couple more bands that really stuck with you.
Ivers: The Cramps! Oh, the Cramps were just so perfect to film, and just a great band. Richard Hell. Another band a lot of people don’t remember but were incredible were Pylon. They were amazing. They blew my mind. There’s a band from Minneapolis called the Suburbs. I loved them, they were fantastic.
Was there a time that you tried to record and it was a disaster?
Armstrong: When we did the Paradise Garage, a really infamous gay disco. Richard Hell tried to do a gay punk night there—it was called “Hell in Paradise.” It was Richard, Lydia Lunch, the Contortions, the Stimulators, someone else. But it was a pig fuck, a total disaster. Nobody came, the power blew. But it wasn’t us, it was actually the bands blowing the power. It was just awful. The infamous story was that James Chance took some acid after his set, and went and had sex with some girl in a graveyard over on 2nd Street, came back. Richard Hell is standing there arguing with the owner, because the owners said they weren’t paying the bands. They argued hard, and brought out the big bouncers. James Chance is standing there, completely blasted on acid, looks right at the owner, picks up a beer bottle, smashes it on the bar, opens up his shirt, slices the bottle across his chest, bleeding hard, and says, “You can’t scare me.” And they were like, “Okay, we’ll pay you.” Fuckin’ awesome.
Okay, you’re compiling these films, and you’re showing them on your cable access show, “Nightclubbing.” I assume the name came from the Iggy Pop tune?
Ivers: Absolutely. That was my favorite song to dance to when we went to the Mudd Club.
Armstrong: Yeah, going out to nightclubs was Pat and my major activity, so it seemed appropriate. So our “Nightclubbing” show was on Channel 10, which was Manhattan Cable TV’s attempt to do local programming outside of the two Public Access Channels. I honestly can’t remember if we had a 58 or 28 minute time slot.
Ivers: They were half-hour episodes.
So that’s around 1978, and you’re starting to do instillations around town too?
Ivers: Pretty much. The first time we ever showed a video was at the Mudd Club actually. We had this insane black and white projector that looked like a bomb. It looked like the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. We painted TV sets outlines on the white walls, and we’d project video onto those. That was the first time we showed video. Anthology invited us to do the opening for PS1 in 1979. At that time, PS1 was a really beat up old school, really bad. We had the “rock’n’roll” classroom. That place was falling apart. Our friend, his foot went through the floor that day as we were setting things up, it was dangling down through the floor!
Whoa. And now MOMA runs it. So, you started showing footage at Anthology Film Archives in the L.E.S. too. Is that when you really started to realize you were doing something unique?
Armstrong: Our friends Ann Volkes and Shigeko Kubota were the video curators at Anthology Film Archives then, and asked us to show our weekly “Nightclubbing” program there at midnight. See, at the time most of downtown Manhattan was not wired for cable, and this would be a way for lower Manhattan-ites to see the show.
Ivers: Sometimes we showed at a couple old dives too, which was funny, these old man dives, and us and some punk friends would come in showing these crazy bands!
Armstrong: But even for Anthology, which is like avant garde or whatever, but that was still a new venture then, it was a daring undertaking for Ann and Shigeko. Plus, it was punk rock, not their usual programming. I remember the series being very successful though, bands and fans came and packed the bleacher seating at the old Anthology.
Ivers: But yeah, we realized something was up. I was the ultimate optimist. I thought the punk scene was absolutely essential. I had friends, families and most of my boyfriends laugh at me for it, but I had faith. I always thought that what I was shooting had cultural significance. I always thought that. From the first night I saw Patti Smith in 1974, I thought everything had changed. It was so authentic. That’s the only word I could use to describe it. I felt it inside.
Armstrong: Yeah, I always knew from the days of first going to CBGBs that something special was going on when I saw all those bands.
So, how did the cable show morph into the Danceteria parties?
Armstrong: The cable show was still being run as we started “Nightclubbing” nights at Danceteria in 1980.
Ivers: Our “Nightclubbing” parties, well, I wouldn’t call them “parties.” Danceteria—it was at 37th Street and 8th Ave.—the place itself itself was a straight-up, all-night, illegal nightclub, but one that took out huge ads out in the Village Voice and Soho News, which was kind of amazing. It was insane. No liquor license, serving booze until 8am. The Democratic Convention happened here around that time, and politicians were showing up, getting loaded and doing blow.
Armstrong: We had to buy plastic covers for the TV sets because coke and drinks were falling down into the sets. It was a decadent, fall of the Roman Empire kind of place.
Ivers: Yeah, insane. But the cops didn’t bug us, until later. It was open Thursday through Sunday nights. Originally, it was just that they asked us to do this video installation for the opening weekend, but it went over really well, so it continued. They would pay for the equipment rentals. But we’d pick up all the equipment at the rental place on Thursday morning, drag all the equipment up the stairs at Danceteria on Thursday afternoon, then back out on Monday morning, and take it all back to the rental place. That were the first time video projection was used as an ongoing feature in a nightclub, with its own floor for the showings. Charlie Libin at Hurrah’s had video in a club before us, but it was monitors on poles on the dance floor. Our thing was a whole separate area devoted to only video. We made it look like your parents’ family room, couches, end tables, lamps, etc., as a way to make viewers feel relaxed, but then we hit them with wild programming that was unlike anything on TV at that time. You have to remember, this predated MTV, and YouTube, needless to say. Yes, there was such a time, kids! And punk rock, for all its critical darlingness, was really only seen by a teeny, tiny demographic. You would have had to have seen a band live to have experienced most of this new music. So this was in our minds, to be a bit of a community service I guess, spread the word; and also a way to just have fun beyond just hanging out at a club. We mixed it up with found footage like a scene of an octopus attacking a snake, or Roger Corman trailers, the shower scene from Psycho, weird Kung Fu movie clips, that kind of thing. And then some other visual artists would drop by and give us some video they made that we would show. Keith Haring, who worked at Danceteria as a bus boy, gave us a clip he made that featured two boys having sex in a shower deconstructed visually to the Gary Glitter song, Rock and Roll. I doubt that even exists anymore.
And were you starting to call yourselves “video DJs?”
Ivers: Yes, and we started doing the mix too, mixing the videos, which was new. But anyway, yeah, our staff members were ridiculously great, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Peter McGough, Zoe Leonard, Chuck Nanney… they all went on to be recognized as significant artists, as well they should. And they were all sweethearts. Jim [Fourat] and Rudolph, who were the two people who ran Danceteria, should be so happy about that. Their most important gift was putting people together. That staff was the ultimate, the best staff in the history of nightclubs.
Armstrong: In the late 70’s, there were not many video projectors. So when we did screenings it was usually on multiple monitors standing on pedestals. We’d jazz them up by draping leopard fabric on them and stuff like that, but it was always very museum-y. So when we were offered the chance to do a video installation for the first Danceteria opening weekend, we decided on that homey living room set-up so. The “Video Lounge” was a huge hit and became a permanent feature of the club. So we rented a camera and began taping the bands and simulcasting the performances in the Video Lounge too. You never had to go downstairs! We had our own space up on the third floor, sound system and bar. It was amazing. But it was wild, and a cash-only place, so it was almost doomed to be short-lived. Not to mention the, shall we say, “shady ownership connections.”
Ivers: We got robbed twice.
Armstrong: Yeah, the TV sets got robbed twice. Once we came in one afternoon, and all the TV sets were gone. We’d rented them from a company called “TV Rental Company” (laughs)! Just found that in the yellow pages. A small storefront window with one little old man sitting there. (laughs) But worse, a lot of the tapes were stolen too. We lost nearly 20% of our collection, really significant stuff like R.E.M., Tito Puente, Devo, Pere Ubu. Really sucks. So then we started to get suspicious, again it was shady, and so we started taking things home and trying to copy tapes too. But right around that time is when the club got busted. The managers were conveniently not there that night.
So did that kind of end all the filming, video DJing, etc.? Or did you just want to move on?
Ivers: Well, it was all so much fun, but then you’re into month five of doing this nearly every night, and you just start to get tired.
Armstrong: And we were into other things too, like shooting feminist conferences; and we tried to do what they used to call “industrials” which were corporate training films, like we did a couple for Revlon.
Ivers: But once “Nightclubbing” got going, we couldn’t do anything else, we were exhausted. But we were paid well, in cash, each night, I think because everyone kind of assumed Danceteria couldn’t last long, and just wanted to get paid right away (laughs)
So the details of that last night of Danceteria.
Ivers: Oh yeah, so it was a regular night, and suddenly there’s a knock on the door of the DJ booth. And there’s a guy standing there in a brown leather jacket and a mustache, and I say to myself right away: “cop.” And he said, “Do you work here?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “You’re under arrest.” So they let all the customers go, then brought everybody, the staff, up to the video lounge. Then they said, if you want to get rid of anything before we bring you down, we don’t want to do all the paperwork, so go to the bathroom—they were basically telling us to dump all our drugs. Then they handcuffed us all together, put us in the paddy wagon, and brought us to the station.
Armstrong: Keith Harring was with us, getting arrested, Zoe Leonard, the photographer, Max Blagg, the poet, David Wanarovitch, the painter, everyone, all the usuals, or unusuals I guess. Laughs. Zoe Leonard remembered saying, as they split us all into two cells, “Look, we’re all fags and dykes, can’t you just put us all in the same cell?” Laughs. They let me and Zoe keep our cameras, so Zoe and I took a lot of pictures that night, and there are some here in the “GoNightclubbing” instillation here at this Bobst Library.
Ivers: We worked at one more club for a summer, but it already felt like it was over. Studio 54 had closed, and those people with their money and their cocaine really settled in downtown and it changed the tenor of things. The scene had peaked for me, and it was time to pass the torch.
Armstrong: Getting robbed and arrested was a shock and a bummer. The nightclub scene was changing and the huge clubs were not appealing. Remember, Pat and I had come uptown from CBGBs to work at Danceteria, and we were used to a really different, smaller scene. It seemed time to move on. We got offered some screenings and did some traveling with our programs to museums and nightclubs. On one “Nightclubbing” tour, we used the Eastern Airline “Fly Anywhere” pass (it cost $300!) and traveled around the U.S. Every flight transferred though Atlanta, and we’d often be there for hours, so we joined the private Lonosphere Club. Picture two punk girls, dragging beat-up luggage and boxes of videotapes into that door! We’d crash there, use the phone and eat all the free food and drinks between flights.
So when and how did you begin to decide to bring this stuff out again and try to show it years later, and gauge interest for it all?
Ivers: We did shows in London and toured with our videos the U.S. in ‘81, ‘82, usually showing in one museum and one nightclub per city, and it was a lot of fun. We put things away until 2000 when a friend of ours, Phil Hartman, opened a little experimental viewing spot, the Pioneer Theater, in the East Village, and asked us to do a series of screenings. I guess that was the beginning of the revival of interest. But it was hard to know what we had because everything was on ¾-inch videotape, and I would have to bring the tapes into work and stay late and dub some stuff off to another format. It was super time-consuming and no picnic because we had literally a couple hundred hours of stuff over 90+ tapes! So we showed compilations of a teeny bit of the archive at those screenings. We started shooting interviews of our old friends around that time was well, I think between 2003 and 2010.
Armstrong: There’s a list of the shows we’ve done on the website, we did a bunch of shows between 1975-82, and then again from 2000 to the present.
So how did NYU come into the picture, for the digitizing? And what are their plans?
Armstrong: Our friend Robin Schanzenbach worked at NYU and told Marvin Taylor—the director at the Fales Library and the Downtown Collection—about our archive. The Downtown Collection was the perfect place for our archive to end up; we’re in there with people like Richard Hell, David Wojnarowicz and the Riot Girrls. Right now viewers can make an appointment and watch the “GoNightclubbing Archive” on DVDs in the viewing room. Getting the archive digitized by Fales Library was a miracle. We did not have the resources to do it, and up until then the tapes filled up a closet in my apartment and a wall of bookcases at Pat’s. When my kids were teenagers they viewed that closet with envy, New York real estate being what it is. (laughs) Now the physical tapes are gone and we have the digital files. Way less storage space needed! Mercer Media, an exceptional archiving company, did the transfers and every tape that’s survived actually played! The videotapes held up a lot better than anyone expected.
Ivers: The actual digitizing began, I think, around the end of 2012, but we’d been planning it with Marvin for a few years previous. NYU is making it all a searchable archive for scholars, which is great. We hope to take Nightclubbing on the road ourselves again. But we could never have done all this without Fales digitizing the archive for us. We are doing some screenings at the Museum of Art and Design from April through June. And maybe Athens, Georgia, around that time as well.
So now, the installation, “GoNightclubbing Video Lounge” at the Bobst Library, is on view until May 31. Tell me how this came about, and the basic concept behind it.
Ivers: Marvin Taylor has been so supportive of us. He spearheaded the digitizing, and he believes in what he calls “embodied viewing.” In other words, experiencing something as it was originally seen. This installation at the Bobst Library is meant as a recreation of the Video Lounge at Danceteria.
Armstrong: Yeah, we’re showing musical performances from the GoNightclubbing Archive, moshed in with eclectic and arty programming. What’s different is that in this new world of solo viewing on phones and tablets, the Video Lounge viewing environment is no longer familiar. To experience the gallery, strangers must gather around a common TV in a family-like setting, sharing couches and coffee tables. Their bodies may even, gasp, touch! We have that ten-week screening series coming up at the Museum of Art and Design. We assembled the programs since we got our archive restored, and for much of the programming, it will be the first time it has ever been shown.
Cool! No chance of doing a compilation DVD down the road, eh?
Armstrong: There are many DVD compilations we could assemble from our archive, that’s for sure. But you know, the music has to be cleared, the artists have to be paid, it’s just a huge, expensive job that we are not in a position to do right now. If it could happen in the future, that would be great!
This Thursday, April 10, 2014, Armstrong and Ivers will being doing a Q&A at the “GoNightclubbing Video Lounge” at 6pm. If you’re in town, go there, shake their hands, and thank them vociferously.