The finale of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which aired on CNN this past week, was a bittersweet love letter to the East Village and Lower East Side of the ’70s and ’80s. Which seemed like an appropriate send-off for a guy who was punk rock till the very end. When Bourdain filmed the episode in June, we knew only that it would feature neighborhood legends like filmmakers Jim Jarmsuch and Amos Poe at Max Fish, photographer and historian Clayton Patterson at his LES home, hip-hop visionary Fab 5 Freddy at El Castillo De Jagua, and hardcore musician Harley Flanagan of the Cro-Mags, who, after visiting Ray’s Candy Store in the episode, recalls living in fear of a local street gang that, um, listened to Kraftwerk.
Even then, it was hard to imagine how artfully the episode would explore the neighborhood’s transformation from a gritty bastion of bohemia to the domain of “projective-vomiting frat boys with baseball caps on backwards,” as Bourdain put it. Bourdain didn’t dwell on gentrification, even if there were pointed cutaways to luxury gyms, juice bars, and under-construction Target stores. Instead, he celebrated the holdouts, visiting writer and punk pioneer Richard Hell of Television in his book-lined apartment on East 12th Street, dining with Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie at old-school red-sauce joint Emilio’s Ballato, and hanging out in the kitchen of painter-musician John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards.
Several of the episode’s subjects have been lionized many times over. Danny Fields, who meets up with Bourdain at Veselka, is the subject of a documentary and has talked at length about signing Iggy Pop and managing the Ramones. But it was good to see deference paid to less prominent neighborhood characters, such as photographer Alex Harsley of 4th Street Photo Gallery, whom B+B profiled back in August, and firebrand musician and actress Lydia Lunch, whom we interviewed a few years ago (true to form, she makes a move on Bourdain while dining with him at Public Kitchen). One segment highlighted the work of Jim “Mosaic Man” Power, who continues adding his mosaics to the Astor Place area. (Last week, local Mac-repair shop Dr. Brendan got immortalized on his light pole at St. Marks and Third Avenue, as you can see to the left.)
Early in the episode, Bourdain interviews artist-musician Kembra Pfahler at the East River Park Ampitheater, near her all-red apartment in the East Village. She calls her adopted home “a wonderful amusement park of good and bad ideas, all happening at once.” But while there’s some fun footage of Pfahler’s long-running shock-rock project, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, her segment quickly gives way to another one about fellow performance artist Joe Coleman. (One of the episode’s most memorable moments: A cut that jumps from young Coleman biting into a live mouse, to present-day Coleman enjoying a classy pasta dinner at John’s of 12th Street.)
If you want to learn more about Pfahler (our first question: what’s up with the giant disco phallus?), you’ll have a prime opportunity to do so when Steven Blush, the journalist and filmmaker who wrote the book and directed the movie American Hardcore, interviews her at East Village bar Coney Island Baby on Dec. 20 at 7:30pm. The free chat is part of Blush’s Art of the Interview series, wherein he sits down with “the greats of rock culture.” Tonight at 7:30pm, he’ll speak to Patti Smith’s longtime guitarist, Lenny Kaye.