BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | From the start, it was clear that the benefit show for the Second Ave. gas explosion was more than just an outpouring of love and dollars for the victims of the horrific disaster: It was also a defiant fist in the air in support of the spirit of the bohemian East Village — a community at risk of being trampled beneath a juggernaut of rising rents and gentrification.
As the writer Alan Kaufman, the event’s organizer, put it, while Patti Smith was the night’s headliner, “the real headliner of this show is the East Village itself.”
A rally planned before the show, at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, didn’t quite come off due to low turnout.
“It was more of a discussion group,” conceded Aron Kay a.k.a. the Yippie Pie Man, who was hanging out in the theater’s lobby as showtime neared. Saving small businesses had been one of the topics.
The place’s 200 seats were packed, with those up front going for $150 and in the back $20. For members of the media lucky enough to get in, it was standing room only.
Lorcan Otway, the theater’s proprietor, in his opening remarks, also spoke to the suffering of local small businesses, whether it be from the explosion just two blocks away or, in his own case, skyrocketing property taxes.
“A 67 percent tax raise under Mr. Bloomberg — small businesses can’t afford that,” he declared.
As for the residential tenants displaced by the disaster, “they have to be allowed back in,” he said to the audience’s applause.
Three buildings were totaled in the disaster, in which two men lost their lives, while scores of local families living in neighboring buildings were displaced.
Kaufman said he was inspired to put together the benefit after reading an article about a shopkeeper who had lost everything, whose friend was lying in the hospital recovering from injuries suffered in the March 26 explosion.
“Each day, I found myself walking past the rubble,” Kaufman said. “I asked myself what we can do — and you’re the response,” he told the audience.
Within a 10-day span leading up to the show, Sting gave $36,000 toward the cause, while others who contributed included Yoko Ono, Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam and Gertrude Stein of the Boris Lurie Foundation. Meanwhile, the benefit evening netted $11,000, bringing the total to more than $50,000.
All the cash is going to Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the local tenant-advocacy group that has been assisting the explosion’s victims.
“We asked around about who to give the money to and everyone said GOLES,” Kaufman said. “After Hurricane Sandy, it was GOLES. They’re boots on the ground.”
Michael Callahan of GOLES, co-chairperson of LES Ready!, said, “This is not about the rubble — it’s about going forward.”
LES Ready! is the area’s long-term recovery group, formed to address the Sandy crisis and future disasters.
“We have drafted a disaster plan for the Lower East Side that’s in phase two. This has taken us to phase three,” he said of March 26.
Starting the show on a spiritual note, Kaufman noted that his great uncle, Abraham Cahan, was the founder of the Jewish Daily Forward. Through him, Kaufman met the legendary writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who told him: “‘In Jewish tradition, if a funeral procession meets a wedding procession, the wedding procession takes precedence.’ … This,” Kaufman said of the show, “is the wedding procession.”
This wedding procession, though, was headed by a risquée cowboy, namely, Randy Jones, the Village People’s original Cowboy and an East Village resident.
A dynamic and powerful singer, Mollie King, another East Villager, was the evening’s opening act. A theme of the changing neighborhood resonated in her lyrics.
“This town is no longer familiar,” she belted out in her first song’s refrain. “Still love yah so!”
Next up were Patti Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye. The audience sat riveted as the pair took the stage and a crew member plugged their acoustic guitars into the amps.
“As I was getting dressed today, I touched everything I put on,” Smith said, “my T-shirt, my socks. … I imagined what it would be like to go off to work or to shop and everything was gone — photos of my daughter…perhaps even my beloved cat.”
Her first song was “Grateful,” she said, because “we’re grateful to support them.”
As they launched into the song, a burst of camera flashes exploded from the audience.
Next it was Kaye who shared words.
“I live about a block from here,” he said. “If you go up on my fire escape and you look, you see a big hole in the ground.”
But there’s also “a big hole in the neighborhood,” he said.
“As a resident of the East Village for half a century, I mourn the loss of so many businesses — the old copy shop where I used to get my envelopes,” he said. “I’d like to thank you for helping keep the spirit of the old East Village alive,” he told the crowd.
An animal lover, Smith chimed in again about pets still missing since March 26.
“All the animals that were lost — it’s not just a pet, it’s family,” she said. “You mourn. …”
“Activism really begins with just being a good neighbor,” added Kaye. “Really, that’s all it is.”
They then got the crowd rocking full tilt with Smith’s populist anthem “People Have the Power,” which embodied the feeling of resistance bursting from inside the room. Smith dispensed with her guitar and left the strumming to Kaye as she boogied and punctuated her lyrics with hand gestures. In a second, she had the willing crowd clapping along in staccato rhythm.
“People have the powwwwer — to dream — to rule — to wrestle the world from fools…” she sang, elevating the audience.
And, in particular, elevating the Pie Man, who — due to his using a wheelchair — had been seated by Kaufman up on stage with a dozen or so survivors of the disaster. Kay hopped up out of his seat and raised his fist to the crowd, pumping it in time to the music.
Up next, Tammy Faye Starlite mixed comic patter with song.
“Who knows what they’ll build there?” she said of the gaping hole left at Second Ave. and E. Seventh St. Maybe “a giant monument” to a part of Taylor Swift’s anatomy, she quipped.
“Where the f— is she?” she asked angrily. “Shouldn’t she be here representing?”
The audience applauded the diss of New York’s official “tourism welcome ambassador.”
“I’m really glad this is happening, and right here in this building,” said the East Village’s Jesse Malin as he took the mic next. “I came to this part of town from Queens at 12 years old because I wanted to come someplace where I could wear bungee pants and creepers and not get beaten up. … I used to come in here and watch Bogart movies when I was a kid,” he recalled of back when the theater showed films.
With a ray of optimism, he said, “We still got St. Mark’s Bookshop and Gem Spa and Tompkins Square Park. I was just at B&H [Dairy].”
Malin’s rock set was followed by Chris Riffle’s psychedelic folk music.
Bringing some drama, Kayvon Zand — a John Sex-like goth/disco act — said he, too, felt right at home in the East Village.
“When you’re a Persian redneck in North Carolina, there aren’t too many places you can live,” he noted. “So I came to New York City, and not just anywhere, I wanted to live in the East Village.”
Cowboy Jones added that he’s a North Carolina transplant, too.
During intermission, the Pie Man started expounding from the stage about the “East Village Diaspora” and the need to take back the ’hood.
“This is our neighborhood — not the real estate maggots’,” he declared.
“On with the show!” one woman in the crowd called out dismissively.
However, Kaufman sprang to Kay’s side and defended his right to speak.
“This is the Yippie Pie Man,” he said. “He’s a neighborhood legend. Please, a little respect.”
He asked Kay to list some of the people he’s plunked with pies in the past, to which he replied, William F. Buckley, Senator Patrick Moynihan, Watergate burglar Howard Hunt and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
“Anyone more current?” someone asked. It was a tough crowd, at least for the Pie Man.
The evening also saw the nonprofit arts group Slide Luck honor four neighborhood photographers, Q. Sakamaki, Clayton Patterson, Ken Schles and Spencer Tunick.
Tunick is known for his public shots of groups of nudes on the city’s streets and bridges, while Schles is renowned for his photo book “Invisible City” (reissued last year), about New York’s 1980s nightlife. Patterson and Sakamaki both covered the Tompkins Square riots of 1988 and the park’s homeless Tent City.
“Tonight, it reminds me of one of the great things of the East Village and Lower East Side — it is kindness,” Sakamaki said, recalling how some in the community rallied to defend the homeless from being kicked out of the park.
Patterson also helped provide support for the benefit show, though he was in Austria at the time of the event.
Penn Badgley of “Gossip Girl” fame performed with his band Mothxr, transporting the audience with their avant-garde jazz/funk sounds.
On Ka’a Davis, a member of the East Village’s squatter movement, shredded Afro roots funk on electric guitar.
“Straight from the squat,” he said.
Local favorite David Peel and the Lower East Side belted out the sing-along friendly “Help the Victims — Help Them To Survive,” as found-art painter Zito simultaneously created a Lou Reed portrait onstage.
Peel then segued into “I Like Marijuana,” and the Pie Man jumped up out of his seat again with a raised fist — though this time he soon had a lit joint in it, and offered a toke to one of Peel’s backup singers.
Dev Hynes of Blood Orange and the Bowery Boys also took turns on the stage, while Edgar Oliver read three poems in his inimitable style.
There were some groans as cast members of “Grindr: The Opera” did a sexually explicit number — but, hey, you can’t please everyone.
The musicians from “The Servant of Two Masters” at Teatro La Tea closed the night — actually, it was already Monday morning, and not many were left in the audience — with a rousing rendition of “Come On Eileen.”
Afterward, Kaufman said, while meant to support the disaster’s victims, the benefit also helped the community as a whole.
“It was all for them,” he said of the shell-shocked East Villagers seated onstage. “And, it was found out later — we were doing it for each other.”
After the show, he said, two people stopped him on the street and both urged him, “You have to do this again.”
That inspired him to speak with Otway, and they have now decided, due to the benefit’s success, to hold a regular “East Village Show” at Theatre 80 the last Sunday of each month.
“My idea is it would be bands and film, video, onstage interviews — like a live arts magazine onstage,” Kaufman said. “Part of the evening would be brand-new talent, mixed in with better-known people.
“One of the things I discovered [in doing the benefit] is that young people are still coming here looking for the East Village that I came looking for — even though the rents are no longer affordable,” he said. “They want to meet the legends — Patti Smith, David Peel, Clayton Patterson, the Yippie Pie Man — and they want to belong to the same thing. And they do. It’s not their fault that greedy developers make it impossible for them to live here.”
All of the shows’ proceeds will be split 50/50 between GOLES and a new nonprofit foundation that has been set up to help Theatre 80 and Off and Off Off Broadway theater, in general, the Howard Otway and Florence Otway Opportunity Project (HOFOPRO).
So how was the show, the Pie Man was asked after the benefit?
“There’s potential,” he said, “as a springboard to reclaim the East Village.”