Monday, April 7, 2014

IN MEMORIUM: LEEE BLACK CHILDERS


Iggy Pop & Leee Childers, 1972


 The world lost a treasure when iconic rock ‘n’ roll photographer Leee Black Childers passed away at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles on the afternoon of April 6, 2014.

 Leee was in town for a huge retrospective of his work titled  Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rock Stars And Punks,  on March 22 at Lethal Amounts in downtown Los Angeles. The opening was spectacular and crowded. After this last overwhelming success, he fell ill that night, barely hanging on until he made his final exit yesterday.

Though the younger set would probably have to Google his name, they’d  undoubtedly recognize the extraordinary images he captured of   David Bowie, Blondie’s Deborah Harry, Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol and the living-out-loud- Superstars of his Factory scene plus many, many more.
Debbie Harry by Lee Black Childers

 Leee was truly legendary; the incredible body of work he left behind is to the world of rock and roll  (and various other relevant subcultures) what the Time/Life images of Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Alfred Eisenstaedt were to the world at large.

Leee’s incredible shots of people who themselves would become legends- whether the onstage, in the studio, backstage or out at play in the wee hours-were equal parts Irving Penn and Diane Arbus. But unlike them, Lee wasn’t just a passive lens man or historical documentarian, he was an integral figure in the varied underground movements and scenes he actually helped to create, and was personally involved in the lives of his subjects.

 Though probably best known as a photographer, with his stunning images appearing on album covers and in publications such as Creem, Rock Scene, Circus, NME and Sounds, Leee’s reach was farther and wider.  It encompassed band management,  road tours, film (as an interview subject as well as filmmaker) writing, painting and sewing. He worked tirelessly and creatively in many mediums, not the least of which was human relations. An amazing raconteur, he knew everyone, from High Society matrons and minor royalty  to  Lower East Side street hustlers, from record company execs to rock stars, models and wannabes, to a high-school pal who'd become a  world-class con woman,  he was close friends  and confidants with them and knew all their inside secrets. 
Bowie  by Leee Black Childers

He knew all the dirt on  everyone who was anyone...  gossip which consistently involved copious amounts of drugs, sex, ludicrous incidents and fortuitous chance meetings. He’d dish it out judiciously and with cackling glee in the Southern drawl he never lost. He called everyone Darlin’, his sentences often ended in shrieking laughter, and were always peppered with his favorite word,
 “Fa-a-a-a-abulous!” which he drew out long and luxuriously.

 Born and raised in Kentucky, Leee arrived in New York City in 1966. By the next year, he’d become one of Andy Warhol’s assistants  at The Factory, and took to hanging out at the notorious Back Room of mythical Manhattan club Max’s Kansas City, which was the underground scene’s artistic   hub.

Warhol  Superstar Jackie Curtis by Leee
In August of 1971, Leee, Jayne County and Cherry Vanilla, along with other Factory denizens went to London to appear in Warhol’s stage play Pork at The Roundhouse.  It was there he met David and Angela Bowie, and Tony DeFries, whose MainMan company was managing the up –and- coming Bowie. In no time at all, Leee and Cherry began working for MainMan as Bowie’s road manager and publicist  on The Ziggy Stardust  tour. This lead to Leee’s  working with other artists like Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople, whom he toured with. In fact, the Hoople song “All The Way From Memphis” was dedicated to Leee and his MainMan cohort Tony Zanetta.

 By 1974, Leee was a fixture at CBGB’s, the nascent hub of American punk rock, and home to bands like Ramones, The Deadboys, Television, The Cramps and Talking Heads.  Leee took many photos and worked  constantly. By  1975 Leee was managing Johnny Thunders’ post-Dolls band The Heartbreakers, whom he brought to London the next year, just in time to experience the raucous rise of English punk with The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Clash, Damned, and Siouxie and the Banshees.

Levi Dexter & Leee, late '70's
He spent the next few years migrating between London, New York and Los Angeles, working with The Heartbreakers, Jayne County, and managing Levi Dexter and The Rockats, who singlehandedly spawned the Rockabilly Revival, which is still going strong decades later.

  After admiring Leee’s photos from afar for years in the rock ‘n’roll publications I devoured as an aspiring pre-teen  groupie, I finally met him 1978.  An errant seventeen-year-old,  I was on the loose in New York with my roommate and constant partner-in-crime Kid Congo, who was soon to become a member of The Gun Club and later the Cramps. We were living on The Bowery, in a gigantic loft that was a mere stone’s throw from CBGB’s, which belonged to Kristian Hoffman of The Mumps and his boyfriend, drummer Bradley Field of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks.   Kid and I were obsessed with punk, going crazy every time we spotted Sid Vicious on St. Mark’s Place. We’d panhandle on the streets on our way up to Max’s, so we could afford the Happy Hour drinks that came with hellish bar food- and guaranteed you a spot at their rock shows upstairs. After seeing Levi And The Rockats play there, I’d fallen in love with Levi Dexter, who would become my first husband.  The fact that Leee was managing Levi only made the romance sweeter.

I began to know the real Leee, the man behind the legend. Always intense and constantly on the go, Leee was a non-stop whirlwind of craziness.  He told stories so insane there were absolutely no doubt they’d actually occurred.  He was a walking catalogue of Old School Fag Knowledge; he knew about art, cinema, literature and would quote Talluhah Bankhead and Mae West, rolling his eyes and snickering at the irony of the raucous scenes of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery that were rampant in those days. 

In 1979, he moved The Rockats into room 100 A at The Tropicana Motel, Hollywood’s equivalent of The Chelsea in New York.  Party central, The Tropicana was home to Tom Waits, Chuck E. Weiss, Ricky Lee Jones, and for a time, The Mumps and The Cramps, as well as every other band from London or New York who happened to be passing through. Conveniently, I lived just down the street, and it was there that our friendship began in earnest.  Because I was headstrong and outspoken, we sometimes butted heads over Levi’s career, but that time period laid the groundwork for a friendship that lasted decades.

 I admired Leee’s style, it was magnificent. To me, he was a punk rock version of Sergei Diagelev of The Ballets Russes, and Levi was his Nijinsky. Leee orchestrated crazy schemes with finesse…and always managed to pull them off.  He’d be on two landline phones at the same time, playing record company executives against each other. He'd do business like this every morning, standing on the porch overlooking The Tropicana’s coffee shop Duke’s, dressed in a Fifties bathrobe and Ebenezer Scrooge stocking cap, clutching a vintage flask with “CATNIP” engraved on it, swigging gin. 

 He’d hold court and  describe  the  outrageous antics of  Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn  in minute detail, stuff that’d make all  the contestants on Ru Paul’s Drag Race pale in comparison.  He’d always find the best stuff at thriftstores and was an extremely natty dresser- loud Forties and Fifties shirts  were a  perennial favorite.

 Leee  would  host  wild midnight pool parties at The Trop, inviting everyone from super models, Ron and Russell Mael from Sparks, waitresses from Duke's, Ahmet Ertegun and Rodney Bingenheimer to the elderly bull dykes who hung out at The Palms bar directly across the street. At one of these parties, an extremely high Marianne Faithfull was trying to bum a cigarette. Leee egged me on as I offered her a smoke that I’d filled with cigarette loads that I’d purchased at a Hollywood Boulevard magic store, and we watched in silent hysterics and she lay nodding on chaise lounge, startling into consciousness as each pellet exploded.

Jayne County by Leee Childers
Leee once showed up at a garage sale  at Disgraceland, the  infamous punk crash I lived at with Iris Berry.  He had Jayne County and Angela Bowie in tow, and if it hadn't been  for the makeshift bar  we'd set up in the yard, offering our patrons  stiff margaritas made with Plain Wrap Tequila, Iris and I probably both would've  fainted  from  sheer disbelief.  Oblivious  to how starstruck we were,  Leee, Jayne and Angie just grabbed drinks and joined in the festivities.  As Jayne tried to cram her feet into my vintage gold Spring-O-Lators, Angie and I  
 drunkenly rolled on my bed in a pile of petticoats, and I finally made the slurred  confession that it had been my dream to meet her since I was twelve.

The next morning, Iris, who hadn't met Leee until he came to our sale, sighed and said,

"Leee is amazing! He's one of those people that you just fall in love with immediately, because he makes you feel as though you've known each other for ages..." 

The last time I actually saw Leee was in 2008  in New York. I was in town  doing Maragert Cho's Sensuous Woman show. When Leee came backstage  after a performance, he  enchanted the entire cast and invited us to a birthday party for   rock photographer Bob Gruen. At the party, Leee kept telling me I needed to meet Suzi,   wife of  late  incredible guitarist Mick Ronson. 

"You two will adore  each other!" Leee declared,     
Backstage at The Sensuous Woman

 "I can't wait for you to meet!"

The moment we walked into the party, I lost track of Leee, who was exclaiming "Darlin'!" across the room, seemingly to three quarters of the guests. At the bar, I met a lovely older woman, whom I clicked with immediately.  Next thing I knew, we were howling with laughter, swapping stories and  buying each other rounds. Over an hour later, Leee found me again, raised an eyebrow in his inimitable way and said,

"Oh  fa-a-a-abulous!   I see you and Suzi have already met!" 

I could continue with the Leee stories… they came back to me in waves last night, as my emotions swung wildly from with disbelief, grief, shock and waves of laughter.  I could tell or write so many stories about him, it would go on for pages. Leee’s life was so full, there are many people who could do the same. Of all his incredible talents, it was his social  skills that made him standout among those who knew him. He was a handful for sure... but his friendship was always worth it.

Leee lived life to the fullest, with imagination, creativity and panache. 

  He’s probably up in Heaven right now, having cocktails with  Mickey Rooney... and berating him mercilessly for attempting to steal his thunder.

 Rest in peace, my dear friend.


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Read more on Leee and  his amazing stories:



 
Leee in recent years


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