Flyer for a November 1972 Magic Tramps engagement at the Mercer Arts Center. Eric Emerson is third from Left.
(Image via: Magic Tramps.com - Used with permision)
A note from NYCDreamin...
Warhol Superstar and Magic Tramps vocalist Eric Emerson passed away 34 years ago today in his beloved New York City. All these years later his death is still shrouded in a cloak of mystery and secrecy. My goal with this post is not to unravel the tale of his death, but instead to celebrate in rememberance of his life and all-too-short career, and to maybe expose the story to some of those who may have not read about it previously. It is a story of New York City and of Rock and Roll legend...two of my favorite things and for most of you who read this, two of yours as well.
Early & Personal Life
Eric Emerson was born in 1945 (exact date N/A) in New Jersey. Information concerning his childhood is scarce. He was born to John and Margaret Emerson, his father a construction worker by trade. He grew up in Hoboken, NJ and was trained in Ballet dance at an early age. It was through his love of dance that he came to frequent a small Lower East Side NYC club called The Dom, where he was spotted one night in April 1966 by the club's then-new owner, Andy Warhol, who was always keeping an eye out for interesting and beautiful people to put in his movies. Warhol essentially took the unknown long-haired kid from Jersey and made him a "Superstar" by casting him in several of his underground art-films.
"Black Jeans To Go Dancing At The Movies"
by Marilyn Bender
New York Times - 04/11/66
[Eric] Emerson, who identified himself as 22 years old, a dressmaker and a hairdresser, was in black Levi's, a gray and white shirt, no tie, but a black t-shirt underneath. His blonde hair tumbled to his shoulders in a pageboy coiffure. His wife, Chris, 18, was in a low-belted, pleated dress and had her blonde hair cut in a Dutch bob. "Someone has to have long hair in this family and he didn't want to cut his," she explained.
Early & Personal Life (Continued)
At the time, Eric was living at 436 East 9th Street with his young wife Chris with whom he had his first child, a daughter named Erica, who was born in 1967. Eric had met Chris in Los Angeles and it was love at first sight. The two of them drove to Las Vegas the same night they met and were immediately married.
Eric also fathered anothe child with Stillettoes founding member/vocalist Elda Gentile, naming their son, who was born in 1970, Branch Emerson.
His youngest child, born to Warhol movie actress Jane Forth sometime around 1970, was given the name Emerson Forth.
Jane Forth (Warhol Superstar/Actress/Model) on Eric Emerson
[Eric] knew everybody. There was not a day that you'd go out with him without meeting at least 20 people he knew.
Early (Film) Career
Eric began to frequent Andy Warhol's famed art gallery/movie studio, "The Factory", and soon made his film debut in Warhol's 1966 classic "Chelsea Girls," which debuted in New York City on 09/15/66. Also in September of 1966, Eric travelled with Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" tour and caused a ruckus by stealing a painting from a museum in Provincetown, MA. He told someone that he did it, "just to see if I could get away with it." The painting was eventually returned to the museum through the efforts of Paul Morrissey, who intervened on Eric's behalf in order to keep the museum from pressing charges against Eric.
Eric was also featured in a few other Warhol films in subsequent years: 1968's "Lonesome Cowboys", "Andy Makes A Movie" and "San Diego Surf (more details on that movie HERE)", 1969's "The Mind Blowers" directed by Harlan Renvok, and his final film appearance in Warhol's "Heat", which premiered in New York City on 10/05/72.
Early & Personal Life (Continued)
Eric was an open bi-sexual and had relationships with many of the Warhol Factory regulars. He was quoted in one interview, saying this: "I got really attatched to my wife, and when she went out free-loving the way I did, I got crazy and went through a heavy gay-scene for a while." Once, when his father accused him of "being a little sweet," Eric responded that, "What [my father] don't understand is that my generation can swing both ways."
On July 21, 1969, Eric was supposed to "marry" another of the Warhol Stars, the famed drag-queen, playwright and actor/actress Jackie Curtis. When Eric didn't show up for the ceremony that was to take place at Max's Kansas City, Jackie quickly made other arrangements and "married" a guy named Stuart, the Maitre D' at Max's. The wedding was covered in the Village Voice and was attended by many of the Max's regulars. Trans-rocker Jayne County (in her book "Man Enough to be a Woman") remembers the afternoon this way: "Leee [Black Childers] was invited to Jackie's wedding...and he tried to talk me into going, but I didn't want to go for some reason. I don't know why, and I kicked myself for it afterwards. Leee was there with his camera and he came back with all these fabulous pictures of all the New York Underground, people like Larry Ray, the founder of the drag-ballet Trockadero, in his ballet outfit, Ruby Lynn Reyner, Penny Arcade, Andrea Whips Warhol...Leee described it to me as something totally beyond hippy and gay, something totally new. He was so excited. It was the same day the [first] astronauts landed on the moon."
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, CA...
While Eric was busy with his film-work and hanging out with all the other Warhol Superstars and other weirdos who made up the scene at Max's Kansas City in New York, a group of musicians known as "Messiah" were making a name for themselves at a place called "The Temple of the Rainbow" in Los Angeles, CA. Messiah were an experimental three-piece group comprised of members Lary Chaplan (violin), Young Blood X. (guitar), and Sesu Coleman (drums). They were basically the house-band at the Temple of the Rainbow, and after a few years doing this gig, they decided they needed to write actual songs and hire a vocalist if they ever wanted to score the ever-elusive record contract. Guitarist Young Blood mentioned to the others that he knew just the right guy for the position of vocalist with their group, a guy he had met from New York named Eric Emerson. The band flew Emerson out to Los Angeles. Sesu remembers, "Eric fit [the group] like a glove. Now we were complete - a band with a singer and songs - the ultimate theatre. We attimes played in funky blues bars as a blues band...we called ourselves "The Magic Tramps."
After a serious earthquake rocked Los Angeles in February of 1971, the group had a meeting and decided to pack their bags and head for the East Coast. They were soon on their way to New York, where they were to become one of the pioneering and most important but overlooked bands of the then-budding "Glam-Rock" scene that was about to develop in Fun City. The fun began immediately upon their arrival in New York. Sesu Coleman remembers the night they arrived in New York: "As we opened the van doors [on First Avenue] in the East Village, [we said,] 'We're home!' Sirens were ringing [up and down the block] due to a fire in the building we were going in to. We're taking armfulls of stuff [up the stairs] - firemen are running up and down and in and out. [We're] passing each other like, 'it's no big deal - it's cool - it's New York. Don't drop anything, keep moving."
Elda Gentile (Founding Member of Stillettos/Singer/Songwriter/Author)
It was ten at night. Fire engines wailed outside of the apartment house and [I] leaned out the window to make sure they had the fire in the bar below under control. That is when [I] saw the van pull up in front of the building. A short guy with bright red curly hair down hi back got out of the passenger seat and opened the rear doors to the van. Nothing happened for a minute or so and then [I] saw Eric emerge from the van. The firemen had pretty much completed their task and they stood looking into the van as the dog and another long-haired guy popped out of the back. [I] flew down the stairs [with Eric's child] in my arms. They made it. Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps were home.
Jane Forth (Warhol Superstar/Actress/Model)
[The Magic Tramps were] the original glitter-rock group. But [Eric] never got credit for originating glitter-rock...the original ones never get the credit. He was over-creative, he couldn't be accepted in his time.
Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps
"...And now, I'd like you to take a walk on the wild side with me, Eric Emerson, and my outlaw band - let's take a trip..." - Eric Emerson
Sesu Coleman (Drums - Magic Tramps)
Upon [our] arrival [in New York City], Mickey Ruskin (owner of the infamous Max's Kansas City) said we could showcase there and gave us the keys to the upstairs room. Max's was the first gig we played in NYC. The entire [Warhol Factory] entourage was there. I recall Paul Morrisey, Andy's film assistant told us, "Rock and Roll will never fly in New York City - Cabaret is the way!" So we created two shows - one rock and roll and one cabaret. Our first few gigs were played under the name Messiah, a few gigs under the name Star Theatre. We later returned as the house-band at Max's after a...fire upstairs [there] in which we lost some equipment. Keep in mind that there was not an established rock and roll scene in New York at this time. This was the era AFTER the Velvet Underground and BEFORE the New York Dolls, Kiss, Blondie, Ramones, etc.
We [also] helped open a revamped off-Broadway theatre [complex] called the Mercer Arts Center in the West Village. We soon became the house-band at the Mercer [as well] and the Dolls got their start there opening for the Tramps. Ironically, we helped open [the place], developed a huge music scene there, and were rehearsing there when it collapsed.
Note from NYCDreamin...
You can read MUCH MORE about the scene at the Mercer Arts Center and it's August 03, 1973 demise in the history I wrote on the place last fall. Click HERE to begin your history lesson.
Sesu Coleman (Continued)
Our shows were very colorful, theatrical, original conceptually and musically. I think we were a bit misunderstood as we actually played original music with different time signatures, melodic choruses, lyrics and stories. We always viewed our shows as an experience for one and all. Everyone was made-up and dressed-up - clothes pins on their nipples, goldfish in their platform boots, anything went. That glam period was about show-and-tell, with audience participation. We had visuals, lights, colors, sometimes dry-ice for effect. We also brought various performers up on the stage to add variety. We tried to make the stage an environment and the music interesting enough to have the audience relate to the message. It was a fun an positive experience.
*Read a 12/09/71 Village Voice review of a typical Magic Tramps concert performance at Max's Kansas City HERE.
Jackie Curtis' "Vain Victory - Vissicitude of the Damned"
On May 26, 1971, Jackie Curtis' off-off-Broadway theatrical production "Vain Victory - Vissicitudes of the Damned" made it's debut at LaMama Theatre in NYC. Featured in the cast was Tramps' vocalist Eric Emerson. The production featured music written by the Magic Tramps and Lou Reed. The play ran for a brief time at LaMama and then moved over to the W.P.A. at 333 Bowery where it ran throughout the summer of 1971.
*Video of Eric Performing a few musical selections (along with Tramps' bandmate Lary Chaplan on violin and drummer Sesu Coleman playing precussion behind the stage) in a production of Jackie Curtis' "Vain Victory" has just recently been posted on Youtube by author/Jackie Curtis Biographer (and nephew) Craig Highberger. You can view this historic video by clicking HERE.
Magic Tramps open "Hilly's On The Bowery" a.k.a. "CBGB"
The Magic Tramps were also the first ROCK act to ever play at a place known as "Hilly's On The Bowery." You may know the place by it's later name, the legendary C.B.G.B. They debuted at Hilly's on October 19th, 1972 (see a flyer for the show HERE) on a small stage which they themselves helped to construct. You can read more about this seminal night of rock history HERE. Prior to the Tramps, the only records I've been able to uncover of any music performed at Hilly's was by a group called the "Bowery Chamber Music Society."
An additional authors sidenote of interest on C.B.G.B./Hilly's: I asked Sesu if he'd ever seen Hilly Kristal perform as a solo artist when his club was still in it's infantcy as old concert listings in the New York Times from the July/August 1973 time-frame indicate. Sesu replied that he - "had not seen Hilly perform as an artist, but - I met Hilly with Eric."
*To hear audio recordings of Eric singing vocals with the Magic Tramps, please visit CDBaby.com and order a copy of the Magic Tramps CD "Kickin' Up Moonlight Dust", released in 2005. The CD features some pre-Emerson recordings of the band when they were known as Messiah, a few live Tramps tracks featuring Eric on vocals, and a few post-Emerson tracks with their second vocalist Jay Mala. To date, these are the only officially released Magic Tramps recordings. They were recorded between the years 1970 and 1975. Tramps drummer Sesu Coleman is in posession of more recorded aterial which he plans to release at some point in the future.
Magic Tramps (Continued)
Mid 1973: Eric Emerson Leaves The Magic Tramps
Sesu Coleman: "Eric wanted to continue exploring theatre and show soncepts. He continued to work under a host of names - mostly solo efforts, working with other musicians and ocassionaly with Tramps roadie-and-sometimes member of the band Chris Stein, who would later go on to co-found Blondie. Eric also used a stage name we had performed under for a while called "Star Theatre", but he never played again under the name "Magic Tramps." Some people get confused because the Tramps [continued on with a new vocalist] and Eric went solo. [People who went to see Eric] thought they were seeing the Magic Tramps while in actual fact, by then, the Tramps were a totally different band with new members and new material. They were seeing Eric in various projects that unfortunately never took off. He was too much of an artist and individual. He never found that commercial musical groove that allowed him to be himself. After Eric left the Tramps, Lary, Young Blood and I did assist him on solo projects with other musicians, but never as the Magic Tramps. In August 1974, [we] got together with Eric at Barbara Winter's loft in New York City with a bass player named Walter ("Alter Ego") Greenberg to put together a theatrical show called "Star Theatre." It was our last effort together.
05/28/75 - Eric Emerson Dies In New York City
Early on the morning of Wednesday May 28th, 1975, Eric Emerson's body was found lying next to his bicycle on the West Side of New York City. He was 31 years old at the time of his death. The cause of his death is officially listed as a hit and run and no one was ever charged or arrested in connection with his death. NYPD said the time of the accident was around 3:00pm, shortly after Eric had returned home from a party at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
A weekend long wake was held in his memory and he was buried in Wharton, NJ.
You can see a few photos (taken by celebrated photographer Allan Tannenbaum) from the wake over at SohoWeeklyNews.com.
Shortly after his death, rumors began to circulate that Eric had not been the victim of a hit-and-run driver, but had in fact died of a heroin overdose in the apartment of his then-lover Barbara Winter, ex-wife of guitar great Edgar Winter, and his body had been dumped with his bicycle in attempt to cover up the true facts and location of his death. These rumors have never been substantiated, nor have they been disproven. The NYPD's citing of a 3:00pm time of death and the fact that his body was not discovered until early the following morning certainly suggest some kind of discrepancy in the "official" story.
Andy Warhol on the Death of Eric Emerson
Some of those kids who were so special to us, who made our 60's scene what it was, died young in the 70's. They found Eric Emerson early one morning in the middle of Hudson Street. Officially, he was labled a hit-and-run victim but we heard rumors that he'd overdosed and just been dumped there - in any case, the bicycle he [supposedly] been riding was intact.
Gerard Malanga (Warhol Superstar/Associate)
It's been said somewhere that the good die young - and this is as true now as when looking back at Eric's sudden and unexpected demise, a void is left in the wake of his absence. We can only speculate at the artist he would [have] become. He was a mercurial free-spirit. For me, his enthusiasm was contagious - his encouragement sublime. He was almost selfless in this instance. Whatever the engagement, whether it was crafting leather goods, stitching fabric or writing a poem, he was in the moment of creation and of the moment as well. Eric's legacy remains a constant wonder. He was a friend for all time.
Bandmate Sesu Coleman Remembers Eric Emerson
Eric Emerson - a book unto himself. Eric was a kind and loving person - a party waiting to happen. He was sensitive, non-confrontational and not at all a negative person. Creative, fun, misunderstood. Colorful, magnetic and magical. Life was his stage. Mickey Ruskin - the owner of Max's Kansas City, thought the world of him as did Lou Reed and almost everone who knew him.
*The song "Tattoo Vampire", written by Albert Bouchard and Helen "Wheels" Robbins, which appears on Blue Oyster Cult's 1976 album "Agents of Fortune" was written about an experience "Wheels" had had at some point with the tattooed Eric Emerson.
*The song "Eric's Trip", written and recorded by Sonic Youth, which appears on their 1988 album "Daydream Nation" is another song about/in rememberance of Eric Emerson.
SOURCE MATERIALS/FURTHER READING
*Private Interviews (2007 - 2009) between the Author and Magic Tramps drummer and founding member Sesu Coleman.
"Elda Rose: Adventures in the New York Underground" by Elda Gentile (1994)
"Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties" by Steven Watson (2003)
"Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971 - 1973" by Jim Carroll (1987)
"Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the Glitter Rock Revolution" by Barney Hoskyns (1998)
"High On Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max's Kansas City" by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin (1998)
"Man Enough To Be a Woman" by Jayne County (1995)
New York Post - "He Brought Glitter to Rock Music" (06/04/75)
"Pretty Vacant: A History of U.K. Punk" by Philip Strongman
SoHo Weekly News - "In Memoriam: Eric Emerson" (06/05/75)
ON THE WEB
The by far best place to read more about Eric Emerson is at Sesu Coleman's amazing http://www.magictramps.com/ - the most complete source of information concerning Eric and his outlaw band in the entire universe...
IMDB.com (Internet Movie Database - Eric Emerson)
http://www.thisaintthesummeroflove.blogspot.com/ (search: Eric Emerson/Magic Tramps)