The once hip bohemia of Greenwich Village, where Beat poets and hippies defined generations, has become a slave to overpriced real estate, with its four zip codes ranked in the top ten most expensive places to live in the USA. CBGBS, the club that sired the New York punk and No Wave scenes, and gave a platform to the likes of Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, is no more following a dispute over increased rent. Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are all gone now, leaving a perfectly honed set of myths behind along with their poetry and art.
Then there is Penny Arcade, the dervish-like native New Yorker who first shook up Edinburgh with her hit show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! back in the 1990s. Now Ms Arcade returns for the first time since 2001 with a new solo show. Longing Lasts Longer looks at ageing, nostalgia, longing and loss by way of a torrent of words that is part stand-up routine, part anarchist manifesto and call to arms for the underground to strike back. Judging by the show's recent New York try-outs, it is Arcade's current bête noir of urban gentrification that is ripping the heart out of New York and pretty much every major city in the world, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London included, that forms the core of Longing Lasts Longer.
“Gentrification is over,” says Arcade. “We've been colonised. It's not just about gentrification of buildings, but gentrification of ideas. When ideas get taken over, what do you have left? One of the things this show is about which people will understand is how the early nineties alt music scene was the last time when there was a scene that was in opposition to mainstream culture. But what came out of that? The commodification of rebellion and the Broadway musical Rent came out of that. The government and the state absorb rebellion, and Longing Lasts Longer is about authenticity, and how we keep hold of ourselves, and we do that with a rock and roll soundtrack. We are creating an autonomous zone where we can talk about how we want freedom.
“I'm from the Lower East Side of New York, a city that's the centre of an appropriated culture that belongs, not just to New Yorkers, but to everyone in the world. That culture is about people who live by their own values, people who preserve their independence, and people who put pleasure over security. And pleasure is a radical value, especially now we're descending back into feudal times. Prince Harry just made that statement saying we should bring back National Service, but that's no surprise, because he grew up in a palace and was never in a punk band.
“They used to say New York was the city that never sleeps. Now it's the city that never wakes up. It's called the Big Apple, but now it's Cupcake City. It's an infantilised museum. We're living in peril of immense danger. It's 2015 and 1984 finally arrived. We used to be scared of Big Brother, but now he's a lifestyle guru with a mohito in one hand and a skateboard in the other. But it's in periods like this that the real spirit of rock and roll breaks out.”
This is how Arcade rolls. She could reel off eminently quotable epigrams like this ad nauseum. One to one this makes for exhilarating enough conversation, but put Arcade in front of an audience and it's mix of rabble-rousing, ferocious intelligence and frontline service in the culture wars is an inspiration.
“It's a show about supporting people's individuality,” she says. “It's vindication for the over fifties, and inspiration for anyone under fifty.”
Now aged 64, the artist formerly known as Susana Ventura has had a chequered career at the cutting edge of whatever underground scene was going. Aged eighteen in 1968 she became a member of John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous and appeared in painter Larry Rivers' film, 'T.I.T.S.' A year later she appeared at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in 'Femme Fatale', a play by Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis', who would later be immortalised in Lou Reed's song, Walk on the Wild Side. As well as Arcade, 'femme Fatale' also featured the first stage appearances of Patti Smith and Wayne (later Jayne) County.
Arcade herself became a Warhol superstar, appearing in Paul Morrissey's film, Women in Revolt before decamping to Amsterdam with Vaccaro and Co. After almost a decade in Spain, Arcade returned to New York in 1981, where she co-starred with Quentin Crisp in The Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp before improvising her own solo works which eventually led in the 1990s to Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
In the fourteen years since Arcade's last visit, Edinburgh too has fallen prey to property developers who seem intent on imposing shiny new buildings on an increasingly homogenised landscape.
“I know what Edinburgh was like before gentrification,” Arcade says. “Edinburgh has been in the process of gentrification, partly brought on by the Edinburgh Festival itself, for forty years. I know all about the gentrification of Glasgow as well. I have friends who ran the Brunswick Hotel in what's now the Merchant City when it was the only business on the street. I've just been performing in Brighton, and I was saying to the audience, I don't know why you behave so prim and proper. This place was a cesspool of sex and violence.”
In an attempt to preserve her own city's hidden cultural history, Arcade founded the Lower East Side Biography Project, a documentary film-based oral history project designed to preserve the work of seeming marginal Lower East Side artistic figures in their own words. To date the likes of writer Herbert Huncke and singer Jayne County have been featured in a crucial ongoing archive.
“It's the actual erasure of history,” Arcade explains of the motivation behind the project. “Place names, signs and places were a band played or young people had a visceral experience are all being erased, but soi are people. That's the point of gentrification, to rob people of their history, but young people want to know about these people who did things on their own times and went to the university of hard knocks and can tell you what it was like. That's why we have to preserve these people, so young people don't have their histories erased. You know, I wasted my youth, and I had a great time. We're in the eleventh hour of saving our lives, but I believe in love, I believe in anger and I believe in rock 'n' roll.”
Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer, Underbelly, August 6th-30th, 8.50-9.50pm
The List, July 2015