The Scotsman , October 30, 2004
Bad Penny Shines
by Jackie McGlone
WITHIN MINUTES OF MEETING I HAVE shared a lift with Patti Smith, listened to apercus from the rouged lips of Quentin Crisp and heard of Andy Warhol’s avowed intention to make Penny Arcade his last great superstar.
It’s not so much that namedrops keep falling on your head when you are talking - make that listening - to the fearless Italian-American performer and writer, it’s just that Arcade is a battle-scarred veteran of New York’s avant-garde arts scene and, therefore, you name them, she’s known them, worked with them, or even had sex with them.
She’s the woman who invented street-cred. She knew Allen Ginsberg, she was Quentin Crisp’s "soulmate and anima" and she was friends with Margot Howard Howard, the heroin-addicted New York drag queen who looked like a little old lady, serviced the city’s black drug barons, and was founder of Manhattan’s Mary Stuart Association, formed to celebrate the tragic Queen of Scots’ life. "Margot once met Queen Elizabeth and she actually said to HM, ‘As one queen to another ...’," giggles Arcade.
Indeed, ask her about any denizen of the city’s boho underground in the last 35 years and Arcade will have deliciously gossipy stories galore to relate, barely pausing for breath, while she rails against the "cultural amnesia" that means so many of these seminal figures are fading into the mists of intellectual obscurity, such as Lower East Side photographer Sheyla Baykal and the late, great creator of experimental theatre, Jack Smith, both of whose archives she’s preserving. "I’m their death mother," she explains. "Like I always say, you haven’t lived until you’ve died."
Battle-scarred the diminutive 54-year-old Arcade may be - she looks at least two decades younger, with her mobile features, newly-shorn toffee-coloured hair and impressive bosom - but it’s her own incredible life story that is truly riveting. She will reveal some of it when she brings her show, Bad Reputations, to Glasgow next week as part of Glasgay! festival.
Arcade is already familiar to Edinburgh Fringegoers after bringing her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! to the Assembly Rooms in 1993. She returned in 2001 with Sex, Politics, Reality, which earned her most-cherished review ever: "She combines the anarchy of Lenny Bruce with the pathos of Judy Garland."
In her publicity material, Arcade claims: "I have done everything except beg on the street and kill somebody." It’s an assertion she repeats when we talk over a three-and-a-half-hour dinner in New York’s East Village, once the melting-pot for the city’s counter-culture. And, by the way, Arcade is not joking when she says she’s done it all. Her conversation is peppered with throwaway phrases, such as: "I was coming down off LSD at the time ..." or "When I was a whore ..."
Arcade has been homeless, suffered appalling sexual abuse, was raped seven times while living on the streets as a teenager, has done drugs, had sex with a lot of people, appeared in Warhol’s 1972 film Women in Revolt, been a rural hippie and an AIDS activist, but today she is the undisputed star of New York’s performance art scene, and an unstoppable force of nature.
"Honey, I was one of the inventors of performance art," she says, "for which I apologise to each and every one of you because there’s so much shite around purporting to be ‘performance art’. I was 35 before I called myself a performance artist, now 20-year-olds are doing PhDs in it."
"I’m a working-class intellectual," she says proudly, "and that frightens people in this city." She may be self-educated but she’s astonishingly well-read, bright as, well, a newly-minted penny - although when she was growing up she was the proverbial bad Penny, a name she adopted when coming down off LSD aged 17, after running away from home, a blue-collar Connecticut factory town that had the dubious distinction of being "America’s hardware capital".
BORN SUSANNA CARMEN VENTURA, TO A family of peasant immigrants from southern Italy, she claims she had "the Marlon Brando of Italian mothers", while her father was incarcerated in a mental hospital when she was just four years old. He died there a quarter of a century later and Arcade never knew him. "My mother, who died three years ago and who I nursed to the end, left him there to rot," she reveals.
"It was the greatest embarrassment of my childhood having this criminally insane father - until I could become a criminal myself. If my mother could have put me away for ever, she would have done so," says Arcade, who first ran away from home at 12.
After an appearance in juvenile court as she turned 14, Arcade was sentenced to two years at the Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls. So, she says emotionally, she knows what it means to have a bad reputation. By the time she was 17, Arcade - who has been married three times and is now happily settled with her husband, musician Christopher Rael, 42, who fronts the band Church of Betty - had been discovered, despite living rough on the streets and being raped by "paedophiles and madmen".
Strutting her stuff around Provincetown, the gay Massachusetts seaside resort, she met Jaime Andrews, the man who transformed David Bowie into Ziggy Stardust. He introduced her to downtown New York and the drag queens and gay men who raised and educated her. "They fed my brain," she says. She began acting with the legendary Playhouse of the Ridiculous and, subsequently, joined Andy Warhol’s Factory, "an ego-amphetamine inflated bubble".
Warhol loved the mouthy 19-year-old’s energy and wanted to star her in his films, but it was "boring". She always knew she would become a star in her own right. "I’m an unbelievable performer. I create transformational theatre that’s full of compassion, because I’ve learnt through confessional art to forgive myself, to break up my sorrow into small pieces - and my audiences love me for it.
Arcade says one of her deepest friendships was with Quentin Crisp. They first met on the street in 1981. "I thought he was just another fussy old queen. He looked full of himself, very, very lavender. Years later we met again and he was my last great fag-hag relationship. I loved him and looked after him like a daughter."
After dinner, Arcade insists that we walk along Avenue B, once the last holdout against homogenised consumerism. Today it’s the dernier cri in hipdom, an achingly fashion-conscious neighbourhood, much to her disgust.
"Pah!" she exclaims. "Do these tourists realise they’re sleeping in what were once crack houses, that they’re eating and drinking in shantytowns where the homeless and whores used to sleep?
"Gentrification! It’s gentrification of the heart, soul, mind - and of buildings," she rants, adding that this is the subject matter of one of her most recent shows, New York Values, "about the death of bohemia and the commodification of rebellion, the New York you miss, the New York you missed".
I promise, until you’ve walked through Alphabet City on a Saturday night with Penny Arcade, downtown diva in full flight, you haven’t lived.
• Penny Arcade: Bad Reputations is at the Tron Glasgow, 3-4 November, as part of Glasgay! Penny Arcade’s late night review is at the same venue on 4 November, 10:30pm.