‘I’m in the Band’ Ep. 12: Ann Magnuson
Many Gen-Xers know Ann Magnuson for getting ravaged by a vampiric David Bowie in The Hunger and for singing in the psychedelic, sound collage band Bongwater. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in the prolific performer’s four-decade career as a performance artist, singer, and stage, film and television actor.
Ann’s restless imagination couldn’t be contained by her West Virginia upbringing, and she ran off to New York, where she dove into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s East Village art and punk scenes. She curated performance art and theme nights at the legendary Club 57, which also incubated the careers of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ann brought a unique theatricality to her band Bongwater from 1985 to 1992 and has continued singing solo in various musical projects. This fall, Ann will be gracing season three of the dystopian Amazon series Man in the High Castle with her presence.
In this episode of I’m in the Band, Ann discusses her West Virginia roots and finding her people in a New York City that would be unrecognizable today.
On moving to New York and living amongst your heroes… There are two responses to authoritarianism: compliance or defiance. I think the certain personality type of which I am would be defiance, and I found those people in New York. If you were ready to defy authority, the New York Dolls were your band. I had to go where they were. I would see Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders walking the streets of the East Village, or Patti Smith, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, these are my heroes, and they walk among us. Some stumble among us, but… I’m not just poring over the pages of Rock Scene and Circus magazine. I’m seeing real people who are doing these things. They’re creating, and they’re making their dreams come true.’
On the urban decay of New York City in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s … It was very abandoned. Sometimes you’d walk down the street and not encounter anybody, which was good. It was a rough, rough time in that part of town. But really, almost the whole city was pretty dangerous. People were getting robbed, stabbed and raped. I often had people walk me home or pay for cabs when I couldn’t afford it. And then I was frightened to go up the four flights to my apartment. You really had to be willing to put up with a lot of hardship and danger. But when you’re young, you’re ignorant, fearless and reckless. It was a real wild ride, and I am so grateful that I survived it.
On Club 57 shenanigans… It was created sort of as a social club for the youth of the Lower East Side, which it inadvertently became. We were all in our teens and twenties, but it wasn’t a typical church fellowship club. We made up theme parties, dance parties, performance art, installation and other weirdnesses. It grew exponentially through all the friends we had, and it became quite the happening place.
Keith Haring did an erotic art show, and there was a lot of racy stuff in there. The bishop of the church was coming in, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ Because there was a giant photograph of a big penis that was painted all silver. Somebody was painted all silver and very erect. And it was right there at the entrance. I saw Bishop John coming out, and I grabbed him. I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got to talk to you!’ I made something up on the spot to get him out of there.
Club 57 was a place where we could gather, actually have fun, be optimistic and creative, and escape the bleakness of the surroundings — just engaging in the joy of being alive.
On singing in a band … Isn’t it everybody’s dream to be in a band? I was in a lot of one-night-only bands at Club 57, and that’s where Vulcan Death Grip had our first gig. We rehearsed at the Music Building. It’s so much better than being an actress, because I didn’t have to act like a heavy metal singer. I was a heavy metal singer. I was living the life of a heavy metal singer, but on my own terms. That band ceased being a parody after five minutes into the rehearsal. What actress gets to do that?
On the commodification of New York’s downtown art and music scene… When Jean-Michel Basquiat got rich and started to get very well known, there was a shift in the downtown vibe, in the mid to late ‘80s, where you felt like you had to have the ‘big break.’ Suddenly there was this big division. It wasn’t enough to just get by. You had to get this mega success. MTV really poisoned the waters as well. They co-opted and commodified a lot of the things that were cool and hip from downtown and turned it into a product. I didn’t want to be a product, so I kind of sabotaged myself.
There were a lot of things that I turned down, back when I had a little window of opportunity to be a little more commercial, because I didn’t think it was cool. Now I think back on it, and I’m like ‘Jesus, that was so dumb.’ They wanted me to pick either part in that movie, The Accused. They would have offered it to me, and I was just too fucking punk rock.
(Photo credit: Steven Love Menendez)
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