East Village writer and musician Rayya Elias has died at 57, according to her partner, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert.
“I would tell you to rest in peace, but I know that you always found peace boring,” Gilbert wrote in a Facebook message. “May you rest in excitement.”
In 2016, Elias was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic and liver cancer. Gilbert confessed on Facebook that her close friend’s diagnosis had caused her to end her marriage, the subject of her book Committed, so she and Elias could live as partners. Gilbert “was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya,” she wrote. “And I have no more time for denying that truth.”
In the introduction to Elias’s 2013 book, Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, From the Middle East to the Lower East Side, Gilbert wrote that Elias was “a rough diamond– a black-clothed, raspy-voiced, tattooed dropout of a soul, and she owned a motorcycle, and she kept pit bulls, and she was gay, and she was of Middle Eastern descent, and she’d grown up in Detroit, and she fucking loved the NFL, and she’d been to prison, and she called everyone ‘dude’ or ‘baby,’ and she was trying to clean up her life after years of heroin addiction and decades of an absolutely Byronic free fall into rock-and-roll abandon.”
Elias was born in Aleppo, Syria; she was seven when, amidst social upheaval in Syria, her family left for the Detroit area, where her father took up work as a janitor and her mother worked as a seamstress. “I was lost and confused, in emotional and cultural limbo,” she wrote in Harley Loco. By the end of eighth grade, she was getting high and listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. In the early ’80s, she moved to New York City, to a $245-a-month apartment on Mott Street, “to express my talent and sexuality without the watchful and judgmental eyes of my family and their community.” She found work as a hair stylist and art director and started doing drugs in earnest– she recalled snorting cocaine at the bar at Area, oblivious to the conversation that John Cage and Andy Warhol were having next to her.
As a self-described “East Village goth-wave performer,” Elias fronted a band called Rayya, but she squandered a potential record contract by slipping into a daily habit of using and hustling drugs. She brushed with the law when she held up an East Village drug dealer with a toy gun in 1988 and was eventually arrested for dealing. At Rikers Island, she earned the name Harley Loco after fending off a woman who has trying to take her Harley Davidson boots, and used her hairstyling talents to win over fellow inmates. From there, she spent some time in an East Village halfway house, the Women’s Prison Association, before moving to an SRO on East 3rd Street where she shared a bathroom with legendary dandy Quentin Crisp. She described getting clean in a newly gentrified East Village: “I felt that we had hit the depths of hell together, me and the Lower East Side, and now it was coming back, just like me.”
Elias’s memoir also describes how she came to terms with her sexuality. In 2013, when Elias was a guest at the B+B Newsroom, she said, “I think that’s the challenge in life, is to learn how to be human and to actually live in your own skin. But the city, man, was just like a carnival. It was like a circus and a carnival and I wanted to be the monkey in the show.”
Last year, Elias released an emotional music video for “Happy Home,” a song with lyrics written by Gilbert, about their relationship. You can watch it below.