Retro Review: HARLEY LOCO Takes Readers Back to a Darker Side of New York’s Lower East Side inthe Experimental ’80s

Posted on: Apr 25th, 2013 By:

HARLEY LOCO: A MEMOIR OF HARD LIVING, HAIR AND POST-PUNK, FROM THE MIDDLE EAST TO THE LOWER EAST SIDE 
By Rayya Elias
Viking Penguin

By Clare McBride
Contributing Writer

I adore the ’80s—the colors, the androgyny, the everything. This is mostly due to watching VH1‘s I LOVE THE ’80s ad nauseum at a formative age, which also means that my vision of the ’80s is a particularly sanitized one. I didn’t realize that until I was watching PARIS IS BURNING (1990), the documentary about queer New York’s drag ball culture in the late ‘80s, and saw, briefly, the old Times Square. As much as I love the ’80s, there’s still much to learn, and that’s when HARLEY LOCO popped up on NetGalley for me. A memoir by a queer woman of color-cutting hair and struggling with drug addiction in New York in the ’80s? Sometimes the universe is kind.

HARLEY LOCO is the story of Rayya Elias. In the ’60s, when Elias was a little girl, her family fled the political strife in Syria for the (relative) safety of Detroit, where she grew up. Struggling with the conflict between the American culture she desperately wanted to fit into, her own sexuality, and her traditional family, she fell into drug and alcohol use at a young age. After high school, she began working in a salon and working on her own music, two occupations that eventually brought her to New York. Things were looking up—a girlfriend, a record deal—until Elias’ drug use got the better of her and she spiraled into addiction. It robbed her of her friends, her family, and her dignity, and her struggles to overcome her addiction were herculean.

This memoir opens with an introduction from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of EAT, PRAY, LOVE, praising both close friend Elias herself and Elias’ writing style to high heaven. I’ll be honest, it made me a little nervous. I’ve not read any Gilbert at all, but it did feel a little like someone quite popular assuring everyone that their friend was totally cool. It struck me as slightly nepotistic, which is sort of a poor way to start with a book. But, soon enough, we’re with Elias herself and, as promised by Gilbert, her writing style does feel natural and unforced, straightforward and human. This does mean that there’s very rarely moments of sparkling wordplay; my commonplace entry for this book is quite sparse (but, it must be said, present, which I can’t say for every book I read). But the plainness of the style makes way for Elias’ life.

And what a life! It’s absolutely stuffed with material—dealing with one’s sexuality in the ’70s, being a successful hair stylist in the let’s-call-it experimental ’80s, being a moderately successful music act at the same time in New York, negotiating two cultures, her jail time, struggling with toxic relationship after toxic relationship, and, of course, the all-consuming drug addiction and her multiple lapses.

Unfortunately, Elias’ jam-packed life doesn’t quite all fit into HARLEY LOCO. Her plain, natural style keeping out of the way of the content is admirable, but it also means it feels like a Cliffs Notes version of her life. Her relationship with the polyamorous Lana is examined in great detail, but the succeeding women in her life are written about in less and less detail, until she opens a chapter mentioning a girl she’d been getting serious with. Everything is touched on, but precious little is examined—she praises her own music without getting too far into the creative process beyond “magical” (a similar thing occurs with hairstyling), she glosses over returning to Syria in the midst of a seven-year struggle to get sober, and she doesn’t even go into enough detail about the fact that she shared a bathroom with Quentin Crisp. She’s got a fantastic handle on why she turned to drugs—there’s a passage where she compares walking into the hotel lobby of a nice hotel with her sister while she’s disgusting after spending weeks homeless and high to her experience in high school. It’s fear-based. Getting high is the only way Elias could relax. There’s a staggering moment when Elias gives you the number of years she spent strung-out versus years sober, and you realize she’s including her childhood. But this reflection doesn’t extend to the rest of the memoir, which ends with her final wake-up call and doesn’t examine the process of putting her life back together again. Given the rich material here, it’s frustrating.

On a much, much lighter note, it definitely served its function as a means of ’80s voyeurism. Elias finds her people among new wave and dark wave freaks, all intriguingly dressed, but it’s the Lower East Side you really get a feel for. Late in the memoir, Elias maps her own journey to get clean against how the neighborhood was cleaned up, and it’s a particularly rich and beloved background. Her style means that you don’t get too much into it, but you can catch the taste of it.

Elias mentions her music in the memoir, for obvious reasons (and in increasingly glowing terms), and you can listen to a few of her songs at her Website. Five of the songs are, although begun at different points in her life, completed fairly recently, but “Nothing Matters” is an actual track from circa 1985/1986. It’s a fascinating window into Elias’ life at the time; I recommend giving it a listen.

Bottom line: An interesting life is hurt by the author’s plain style in HARLEY LOCO—everything is so interesting, but there’s little actual reflection. An interesting portrait of the Lower East Side in the ‘80s, but other than that, I’d give it a pass.

This article was originally published on The Literary Omnivore and is reprinted with permission.

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A Sexy Silent Scandal at The Strand Theatre: Daring to Reopen Louise Brooks’ PANDORA’S BOX

Posted on: Nov 21st, 2012 By:

PANDORA’S BOX (1929); Dir: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; Starring Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer; with live organ accompaniment by Ron Carter; Sun. Nov. 25 3:00 p.m.; The Strand Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Ever since The Earl Smith Strand Theatre found new life on the Square in Marietta, the theater’s event schedule has cast a wide net. In between the usual live events and mainstream film titles, The Strand quietly stands as one of the last venues in Atlanta to regularly seek out and book classic silent films, a callback to its roots as an old movie house. (The Strand’s first ever show was the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, TOP HAT.) Except that by the time The Strand opened, the talkies had already taken hold, so the decision to run silent pictures in an increasingly-noisy age of media strikes me as more than nostalgia. It’s incredibly brave.

And so, fittingly, The Strand has found a brave picture to screen. There are few silents more daring than PANDORA’S BOX (1929), playing Sunday afternoon Nov. 25 at 3 p.m.—even braver!—accompanied by a full organ score. PANDORA’S BOX doesn’t fit the mold of the typical silent melodrama. Louise Brooks stars as Lulu, a young woman whose ambition is eclipsed only by her voracious sexual appetite. She uses sex as a weapon to get what she wants, or who she wants, and the film largely deals with an escalating series of consequences, from murder, to imprisonment, and finally… well, I won’t spoil it, but Lulu’s story crosses with a famous historical figure, and her final reward is a spot in historical infamy.

PANDORA’S BOX is directed by the great Austrian director G.W. Pabst, whose list of leading ladies includes such names as Greta Garbo and Leni Riefenstahl, but he cast no lady as magnetic or iconic as Brooks, whose distinctive flapper style and bobbed haircut are more famous today than her name. Brooks was an American actress who rubbed elbows with names like William Randolph Hearst, but who grew dissatisfied with the American system and fled to Europe, where audiences came out in droves to see her magnetism and sexuality portrayed on screen. Lulu is a part born for Brooks and, although the film met with a fair amount of pushback from concerned censors, eventually made Brooks an international star. Today, her name is inseparable from the film’s title.

I mentioned censors, but it’s important to note that PANDORA’S BOX was a pre-code picture. In fact, the film came to America in December 1929, only three months before the adoption of the Hays Code that put a lid on the titillation and sexual experimentation of the earliest studio pictures. (Even in the ’20s, people knew the truth about film audiences—sex sells tickets.) PANDORA’S BOX contains a litany of elements that would soon disappear from American cinemas, such as frank sexuality and a disrespect for marriage. Just a decade later, Lulu’s actions would have classified her as a femme fatale, and she’d certainly snare a young hero or two to their doom. Here, the reality is a bit more complicated, and although it’s true that Lulu faces retribution for her loose morals, it’s hard to ignore the allure of her behavior, which is what the Hays Code was trying to snuff out in the first place.

Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz and Louise Brooks (center) as Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX (1929), directed by G.W. Pabst. Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive

PANDORA’S BOX is also a landmark film in queer cinema, as it does contain (if briefly) one of the first ever screen representations of a lesbian. Played by Alice Roberts, the Countess Geschwitz enters the film dressed in men’s clothes—a tuxedo—and fawns over Lulu, suggesting that the two have a sexual past. Within a year, even such a minor reference to homosexuality would be strictly outlawed on American screens.

PANDORA’S BOX is widely available online, but as with all films, especially from this era, it belongs on the screen (and trust me when I say that a live organ makes all the difference in the world). The film arrived at the end of the golden period of silent films, the end of the pre-code movies, and even puts a symbolic coda on the decade of decadence that was the 1920s. It stands proud as a threshold between two very different eras of cinema. But its sexuality, its spectacle and the compelling nature of its tragic antihero also remind us of another, sometimes-forgotten fact: what excites and thrills us today is the same as it ever was. We didn’t change—the pictures did.

For more about The Strand’s efforts to screen silents as they should be with live organ scores, read our Kool Kat interview with organist Ron Carter, who will be accompanying PANDORA’s BOX here

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