London’s Proud Gallery opens a retrospective of Nat Finkelstein this week, Cold Lips’ Richard Cabut stayed with him in New York, and writes exclusively on the freewheeling photographer who documented the early Factory years:
Nat Finkelstein’s unpublished autobiography, 14 Ounce Pound, begins with Nat sitting in a prison cell talking to the ghost of his dead father. Nat tries to explain and justify why and how he ended up behind bars (in fact, drug smuggling in Paris); how he traipsed for years around the dusty corners of the globe ‘on the run’ from US authorities who he believed had put out a dead or alive on him – in fact, this may not have actually been fact – para-fucking-noia Nat; how he had been done bad by Andy Warhol; and how he had then taken revenge on the middle class fools, fakes and soft heads, which is also how he viewed the Warhol milieu, by selling drugs – Al Aronowitz described him as, ‘Nat Finkelstein, Kokaine King of Woodstock.’ The reader isn’t told what Nat’s dead dad thought of all this. Perhaps he gave him a stiff talking to.
I read this work-in-progress while staying with Nat in New York over the glorious summer of 89. I’d interviewed him in the Spring about his book Andy Warhol: The Factory Years. He inscribed it: ‘To Richard, remember the cry of the mutant, “I need creatures who resemble me.”’ And then kept ringing me to insist I go stay with him in the States – the mutant obviously thought I was his kind of creature.
I loved that book. A fantastic collection of pictures and memories of the Silver Factory during Finkelstein’s tenure as unofficial resident photographer between 1964 and 1967. A chronicle of speed, madness and fabulous art, full of speedfreaks, hustlers, junkies and geniuses; recalibrated fantasies about instant celebrity, money, decadence and rock ‘n’ roll (Nat’s picture featured on the back of the first Velvet Underground LP). My kind of scene.
Nat lived in a tiny first apartment a few blocks across from the East Village. No kitchen. Not even a kettle. If you wanted a coffee, you went downstairs and across the road to the deli. Nat slept in the living room, on a fold out sofa. I was in a little annex, with just about room enough for a single bed. There was no other furniture, and he had no possessions to speak of. A suitcase. Some documents – his work-in-progress – and a bunch of old negs (treasure), all just piled up on the floor. A tape player with a couple of cassettes – London Calling and The Velvet Underground (we discussed which was best – his theory: Brits always went for VU, Americans, including himself, the Clash. Yeah, I went for VU). He later topped up this sparse collection after someone he vaguely knew jumped out of the window at the Chelsea Hotel – we went up to the poor soul’s room to rifle through his things – so it went in these hurried visits to locations of despair and violence.
There was also a telephone at Nat’s. But no one ever rang.
Nowadays, art, music, and cultural output of various hues has been flattened and marked down for fast turnaround; packaged, bundled up, repackaged again to satisfy the need for product and the media’s requirement for subject matter: boiled down into palatable mulch.
Nowadays, Nat, via his intimate association with Warhol and VU (who he called: ‘The psychopath’s Rolling Stones’), would be clamoured over for exhibitions, appearances, interviews, work, rights, prints sales, adverts, the whole shebang.
But in 1989, pre-cultural acceleration, no one really wanted to know. The mutant largely cried in vain.
The phone also never rang because Nat wasn’t a particularly well-liked man. He was garrulous, argumentative, gruff, unreconstructed and didn’t tread lightly on anyone’s sensibilities.
Moreover, he didn’t look the part. At the Factory, a world inhabited by beautiful if disposable wild boys and girls, Nat – a small, balding, old-looking schlub – lowered the tone. Lou Reed said, “The three worst people in the world are Nat Finkelstein and two speed dealers.” Nat was expelled from the Factory paradise when he dared suggest to Andy that they collaborate.
In 1989, Nat was regarded in a similar fashion by the NY Club Kids, whose energy he tried to tap by photographing them in clubs like Redzone, World, Save the Robots et al. The Club Kids, led by future murderer Michael Alig (one of the most vacant people I’ve ever met) tolerated him, but only barely, because he had a camera – of course, exposure was something the Kids craved even more than the ketamine and E that fuelled the scene.
The phone remained silent.
But there was a lot to like about Nat, apart from when he had just been freebasing (a former addict, he hadn’t quite lost his love of coke at that time).
Yes, he was bitter and whiny about his lack of acclaim and respect, but he was also honest about the part he played in his own downfall and stasis via the dismal drugs ‘n’ crime process. And he was smart enough to know that, well, all considered, in truth, everything flows away sooner or later in an ephemeral kind of way – better to shine within the moment, perhaps; to fully fill one’s boots and be true to your own nature rather than lick the world’s arse.
He was also courageous – when one of our gang was mugged for his sunglasses outside the opening of a new club on the borders of Alphabet City Nat didn’t hesitate in throwing his fair share of punches – he was old school Brooklyn tough. He was funny with it. The writing in the version of 14 Ounce Pound I read is a little sentimental and maudlin, but his words in The Factory Years cut to the quick with a hilarious edge.
Of course, Nat embodied all the acerbity and anguish of the city. His world was tainted with an isolating sense of melancholy, pungency and the fidgety foreboding that it was all going to end in salty tears. But he remained an insouciant outsider following his own crazy rationale – the ambiguous somewhere between elation of possibility and the riddle of failure. And he did it very bluntly, which, again was funny – it was a guffaw in acknowledgement of the mad persistence that keeps us all hanging on despite the knocks.
In and Out of Warhol’s Orbit: Photographs by Nat Finkelstein. 11th April – 9th June 2019. Proud Central. 32 John Adam St, Charing Cross, London, WC2N 6BP, Monday – Saturday. 10AM – 7PM. Sunday, 10AM – 6PM.
Richard Cabut – twitter.com/richardcabut