Julius Klein interview, in his studio/gallery, 44 E 1st St,
between 1
st & 2nd Ave, New York City, 1st June 2011

Text: Rokko / Photos: Julius Klein, Rokko

As with every bar that should be taken seriously, the same is true of the infamous Mars Bar (RIP) in NYC’s East Village: the interesting cats are there during the daytime. The later it gets, the more amateur the drinkers who come in and spoil the atmosphere. First time I went to the Mars Bar was in around 2007, when Stu Spasm (Lubricated Goat) brought me there. We ordered two beers and two vodkas, and they were bigger than your usual shots. The rest is unknown.

On another day, I bumped into Julius Klein in the Mars Bar. We started chatting, and it turned out he was a member of bands such as Default, The Pirates of Tech-no Hell and Vacuum Bag, and also the owner of XOXO, a ‘90s gallery and performance space at number 19 on 2nd Ave. When I met him in 2011, he had a studio/gallery directly across the street from the Mars Bar. After a few beers we went over there and continued with whiskey. Again, the rest is unknown.

We decided to meet sober on another day for a little chat:

Julius Klein performing in NYC’s Mars Bar. © Julius Klein

Julius Klein: Well, with the Mars Bar – in the East Village there used to be a very high concentration of musicians and artists, but that number has diminished. Everybody is out in Brooklyn, or they moved to Denver – or they died. So, at the Mars Bar now, a lot of times you’re just hanging out with drunken assholes. I mean, there were always drunken assholes there, but at least back then, many of those assholes were doing shows!

Rokko: How much part of the scene was the Mars Bar? When did it open?

Julius Klein: That was 1985-86, and within one year, it looked like it had been there for 50 years. A lot of the new bars in the last few years want to look like they’ve been here for years – but they haven’t. Hank Penza [the owner, RIP] had already been a long-time Bowery bar owner. The Mars Bar originally had potted ferns hanging from the ceiling – it looked very nice, actually. But then, very quickly, people started carving in the wood bar and doing graffiti wherever an open spot may be. We started doing “open” art shows – and as the liquor was very cheap, between CBGBs, the Mars Bar and – a few years later – my place, XOXO, there existed a whole mini-scene within the greater context of lower or downtown Manhattan.

Julius Klein’s XOXO. © Julius Klein

When did it change, the Mars Bar being full of drunken assholes rather than drunken artists?

Year by year: I’ve been around this area for 30 years, 18 years at 44 E 1st, and here in this space, my gallery, for twelve years. But there’s a new landlord and now we’re about to go to court. And probably three months from now, my wife and I won’t be here either.

The Mars Bar: a very charming example of a proper dive bar. Here, you see Ray outside for a smoke on his chair, inside, always with a glass of red wine. We often met and talked a lot. He was a former doo-wop singer on the streets of New York’s Alphabet City. Then Ray had to fight in the Vietnam War and mentioned that the heroin there was so strong you didn’t have to inject, snort or smoke it, just rub it on your skin and give up. It was supplied en masse by the Vietcongs themselves to weaken their enemies. © Rokko

After Vietnam, Ray came back to NYC and worked as a window cleaner. Sometimes he ended up in different bars when he was supposed to be on the job – like, so his story goes, he should have been cleaning John Lennon’s windows the day he was shot. Oh well…

Ray lived in one of the last flophouses in Chinatown and every time I go to NYC, I bump into him in one of the few dive bars left. © Rokko

Your gallery and the Mars Bar seem to be the last landmarks in this area representing these times...

Yeah, it’s very true that when the Mars Bar closes, that’s a very symbolic end of an era. But in NYC you get used to it; everything is a symbolic end of an era. When CBGBs closed, it was a symbolic end. I don’t mourn it that much. It’s just the way it goes. Now you don’t have the option anymore to move a few blocks away. Our rent will quadruple; we were paying $3,000 a month – which is already a lot – and now [2011] it’s going up to $12.000, of which there is no way in which we can afford that.

Life on Mars. © Julius Klein

Julius Klein’s now former studio/gallery. © Julius Klein

Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGBs, was crying into the camera that he couldn’t afford to keep the club running because he couldn’t pay the rent anymore. But I’ve heard that he was a millionaire, which people only found out after he died. Which kinda makes sense when you think about all those people in their CBGBs t-shirts around the world.

Well, in the early ‘90s, he didn’t have a big merchandising thing, that only happened a few years before CBGBs closed. But yeah, it is true. Still, Hilly Kristal was a very supportive guy. He just let things happen around him. He opened the right place for the right time. He had three spaces, by the way.

So where are you going after you’ll be forced to leave your gallery?

We don’t know... Brooklyn, Queens?

Are you gonna stay in New York? Or go to… Baltimore or Detroit?

Maybe Chicago, ‘cause I’m from Chicago, and have always loved that city.

So, you were born in Chicago and lived there till the early ‘80s. You were in Chicago when Larry Eyler and John Wayne Gacy were around.

Oh yeah, John Wayne Gacy had his office on Halsted Street, just north of Webster Avenue. I lived two blocks south of there at that time, I was that young guy, still in school. His office was right there, I might have gone into and applied for a construction job. I would have been the exact kind of guy, you know, a nice, juicy 20-year-old.

You never saw him performing as Pogo the Clown?

I seem to remember an advertisement in his storefront office window for a clown for hire, which seemed funny for a construction company.

What did you do back then in Chicago? Were you involved in the art scene there?

Yeah, but I never thought, when I was a kid: “I want to be an artist.” Even to this day, I don’t like describing myself as an artist. But if you make paintings and sculpture and organize and participate in shows and your motivation is to make things – I guess that’s what we call an artist.

Back then, I was one of those kids who had very little parental supervision. Even when I was 12, 13 years old, I could stay out all night. In high school, there was an art teacher who noticed that maybe I looked like I had been up all night. In the first year, everybody takes an art class – I did very well and enjoyed making things. So she invited me into a special program that the city of Chicago sponsored, called “The Community Arts Foundation”. What they would do was to actually pay us to design and paint very large outdoor murals in Chicago. I later went to Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Aside from working jobs, dishwasher, busboy, factory worker, I was also doing all sorts of little scams for money, like selling “smoke-ables”: reefer, hash, even opium, when I could get it. Stealing this and that, not from individual people, but from big companies. We were teenagers, what are you gonna do!?!

Vandalizing, drinking, taking drugs.

No vandalizing, but yes, lots of drinking and drugs. When I first came to New York, I stayed at 6th St and Bowery. So I’ve always been in this neighbourhood.

In the ’90s, the Austrian right-wing party had that political campaign with the slogan: “Vienna must not become Chicago.”

[laughs] Especially the East Village at the time – which we also called the Lower East Side – seemed much more dangerous than Chicago. We lived here in really crappy, blown up buildings.

Coming early… © Rokko

… and leaving late. © Rokko

Big hug or headbutt? © Rokko

What was your motivation for going to New York?

A number of things: My first true love had moved here, but then she went to London, was all groovy and cool...

But it just seemed like everything was happening in New York. I had been reading books by Warhol, Kerouac and all the Beats…

Then another girl in Chicago, who was absolutely beautiful, way out of my league – she liked me and stayed with me in Chicago. She was returning to her film studies at NYU and asked me: “Why don’t you move and be with me?” We were kinda in love. And within two weeks, I closed my whole deal in Chicago and moved to New York.

At first everything seemed great, I had a one month sublet in SoHo, and very quickly found a job. We had a dinner party and many well noted New Yorkers attended, there was a kind of euphoria in the air!

But then, as happens to many who move to this city: you lose your sublet, you lose your job – and then, of course, you lose your girlfriend! You get slapped in the face at every fucking corner you cross.

But you made it through that period.

Yeah, that was a great adventure. I hated that time and I thought I could rise above it, deal with it. I was like 23 and my first plan was, I would just hang out in clubs and beautiful women, of course, would get me drunk and take me home and take care of me – but that doesn’t work when you are depressed and have no money.

© Julius Klein

I kinda slid, slid, slid, and then I was homeless, I ended up living in the bushes at Tompkins Square. That was dangerous and it started to get cold. Then in my wanderings, I found a tiny, no-longer used switching room on the roof of an old, 18-storey office building, on 30th St, between 7th and 8th Ave. It was on the top of the elevator shaft – that became my space for the winter. It was maybe 30 inches by 80 inches. There was the big wheel for the elevator right there, that’s how I knew it was morning, ‘cause at 7am it would start to turn.

I was still doing my routine, hanging out in bars and waiting for people to leave half drinks. I would get super drunk but not sick, as I’d be taking a little vaccination from everybody’s glass! [laughs] But it wasn’t good; I was having problems with paranoia. Among many things, crossing streets became difficult. Even if it was a one-way street, I was convinced that cars would be coming from the other direction.

I hung out at such places as the St. Mark’s Bar & Grill, Club 57, the Pyramid Club, the Red Bar, where the euro-trash hung out – sorry! [laughs] It was nonstop, all the time. I became a bartender at the St. Mark’s Bar & Grill and suddenly I was “cool”, like desirable. Four seemingly radical faux-lesbian punk chicks kind of adopted me and I moved into a storefront on 6th St between Ave A and B.

So that job kind of started me on the real road. After being there for a year, I met Raken Leaves who’s been my love for 28 years. She had moved from Detroit.

© Julius Klein

You also performed in CBGBs, but I guess it wasn’t your typical rock show...

Yes, at first it was more... like, rock’n’roll-theatre. I like to use lots of elements. At that time, we were called Vacuum Bag. “The only band that sucks by definition.” [laughs] We did a couple of shows at CBs. One show we did with Missing Foundation, Pete Missing jumped on one of the risers that held the speakers – and that whole thing collapsed. And then... I think her name was Louise – they would write critiques of bands and confused us with Missing Foundation. We had controlled violence, not uncontrolled violence. But then, it kind of stigmatized us – because they had written that we had done that. We didn’t do that!

It was cleared up and we did a few more shows there. By that time, we had morphed into a more song-oriented rock ’n’ roll band.

Other bands and artists went in the opposite direction, with GG Allin as probably the most extreme example.

Definitely, GG Allin took it as far as you could take it. And there was a connection between the Lower East Side and what was happening with performance: Hermann Nitsch, Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, who had himself shot in the arm and who shot at an inflight commercial jet. All these things were affecting everybody’s psyche. My shows had violent edges, but again, it was not violence for violence’s sake.

One of the artists from the Coney Island Sideshow was at the Mars Bar and in desperate need of a drink. He offered to hammer a nail up his nostril for a beer. I agreed. The next thing, he was sticking a pocketknife up there. Another well-deserved round. © Rokko

Can you tell me about the relationship of the Lower East Side scene with the Hells Angels?

I had numerous dealings with the Hells Angels, because we had a recording studio on that block, 3rd St between 1st and 2nd Ave. The Hells Angels were just like a thing that fit in. It was almost like going to see... like when you’re in Springfield, Illinois you might go to see where Abraham Lincoln is buried; if you’re in Berlin, you’re going to see the Brandenburg Gate; the Hells Angels fit in perfectly. Black leather and potential violence. Now, they’ve all gotten so much older. It’s more like a retirement home. You don’t have the whole street lined with motorcycles and watchguards out there, or 30 Hells Angel guys hanging around – make sure you don’t walk down that side of the block!

When I had XOXO – and this was pre-MTV Unplugged – we had real hard rock bands playing acoustically. Maybe because we had neighbours above and we couldn’t have loud rock bands? It became really popular. The Hells Angels, once they saw how popular it became, offered to do security for me, but I was like: “Ahhh, no thanks.”

No Altamont II.

Yeah, right! And also, when you’re running a place, one major thing: you can’t let the security have more authority than you. In ’97, the XOXO building was torn down by the city – that would be a long story unto itself.

Last moments of XOXO. © Steve Carter


Last time you mentioned how AIDS was affecting the scene.

Definitely! Remember when I was saying that everything seemed so fucked up, end of the world-like? AIDS was a big part of it. I remember the first time I heard the word “AIDS”. I was in the sauna in NYU’s sports facility. That was in 1981. This older obviously gay guy says to us: “Oh, you really should sit on a towel!” And we three or four guys were like: “What are you talking about?” He goes: “Haven’t you heard of AIDS?” Most people hadn’t heard of AIDS in ’81. Maybe in the gay community, but not us hetero boys.

Year by year, more people you knew were getting sick and died, not only because of homosexuality, but also because of all the drug use. It was very typical if you shot drugs, you would share the needle. That would be like sharing a joint.

Luckily, I stopped doing that right around that time, not necessarily because of the AIDS thing, but because I didn’t like it anymore, I didn’t enjoy it. I was very lucky, because I did share needles. And then, people really started dying quickly. There was little to no awareness. With the combination of hyper promiscuity and the drug scene, the Lower East Side, the East Village for a few years, had the largest concentration of people infected with HIV in the world.

That became a political issue. It was like: “Well, at least let’s give people clean needles.”

Hamlet was a very sweet artist who frequented the Mars Bar – one of his favourite drawing motifs. That day, he took his self-made Mars Bar t-shirt off and handed it over to me with a hearty “Cha cha cha, motherfucker!”. I gave him my shirt and we kept drinking in our new outfits. © Rokko

© Rokko

So back to the Mars Bar, which will be closing in a few weeks’ time: How important was it for the art scene back then?

In the late ‘80s, the Mars Bar became kind of the resident bar of the Rivington School, an ad-hoc artists’ collective. Mostly due to its location, cheap booze and general funkiness. I think it was the transvestite Margo Howard-Howard who started putting paintings on the walls, but then Toyo, who is the photo documentarian of the Rivington School, started actually making a regular art show.

For many, many years, every month on a Sunday, there would be an opening at the Mars Bar, and anybody could participate. We had meetings where we would discuss different themes for shows. One time I suggested we do an “open mic,” I could supply an amp, guitar, and microphone, and, of course, would M.C. it. It was great fun and a great success! On those evenings, the jukebox was rarely played.

People still argue about who had the filthiest toilets: CBGBs or the Mars Bar. © Rokko

The next afternoon, Ellen, the bartender, said to me: “You know, with the open mic we made more money than on our best Saturday nights. Why don’t we do this every month? Don’t tell anybody, but I’ll give you $20 and I will pass the hat for you after the show – and you can drink for free all night.” I’m like: “Wow-Wee!”

We did it for like five years and it was always great fun. But then new bartenders came, and it had its natural death...

The very last drink, yeah, promised. For sure. © Julius Klein

End note: In the decade that has passed since the above interview, Julius & Raken, after a courtship of 34 years, in 2016, got “legally” hitched (married). They, very luckily, scored a little place 20 blocks north, on 21st St, and so still reside in Lower Manhattan.