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Wonderboy: The life, loves and death of Eric Emerson

Gary Comenas (2016)

page six

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The performances of "Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps" continued at the Mercer Arts Center in January 1973.

Eric Emerson, 1973 (Photo: ©Chris Stein)
(Morrison Hotel Gallery)

Billed as "Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps" they are listed in the the Mercer ad in the January 4, 1973 issue of the Voice (for performances on January 5 and 6) and in the Mercer ad in the January 25th issue of the Voice (for performances on January 26 and 27). They are not listed in the rest of the ads for January and there is no mention of them in the February or March ads. The Tramps, on their own, appear in the ad in the April 12, 1973 issue of the Voice. There is no mention of Eric in the ad.

Village Voice ad, April 12, 1973

The April 14 gig was for one night only, however, and the last time that the Tramps were listed in the Mercer's ads in the Voice. The Magic Tramps did the odd performance at venues like Kenny's Casataways but Eric is not mentioned in the ads for those performances. Presumably, he left the band around this period. The Village Voice ads for Eric performing with the band in New York started with the September 1971 ad of Messiah (see page four) and ended with the ad at the Mercer Arts Center in the January 25, 1973 issue of the Voice. Based on the Voice advertising it appears that he performed with the band in New York for less than two years.

Sesu recalls:

Eric wanted to continue exploring theatre and show concepts. He continued to work under a host of names - mostly solo efforts, working with other musicians and occasionally 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. (ttexshexes blogspot)

According to Debbie Harry, the Tramps remained active in some degree at the Mercer Arts Center until its demise in August. She recalls that some of them were "supposedly" rehearsing there when parts of it collapsed in August 1973: "Supposedly Larry and Sesu from The Magic Tramps were inside the Mercer rehearsing when it actually fell down; clutching their instruments as plaster crashed around their heads like a scene from an earthquake movie, they barely escaped." (DHB16)

The Mercer Arts Center collapsed on August 3, 1973. (PL833) A New York Times article published 4 days later noted that although that much of the Center remained, "future occupancy by the theaters would not be feasible."

George Gent ("Mercer Arts Center Rises From Rubble," New York Times, August 7, 1973):

The Mercer Arts Center, a Lilliputian-sized theater with the ambitions of a Lincoln Center, worked feverishly yesterday to salvage its “total theater environment for the young” from the rubble of the old Broadway Central Hotel, which collapsed Friday.

The Mercer's six theaters, cocktail lounge, rock music cabaret and boutique were little damaged in the disaster because they are located on the Mercer Street side of the building, but Gene Frankel's acting studio and theater, and the office of Joel Weinberg, a lawyer and the theater's program director, disappeared when the Broadway side of the 102-year-old hotel collapsed. The hotel has been declared structurally unsound and future occupancy by the theaters would not be feasible, according to Mr. Weinberg and Seymour Kabach, the center's owner and operator.

Debbie Harry had not yet met Eric's friend, Chris Stein by this time. They met later in the year as an indirect result of Elda Gentile - Eric's ex-partner and the mother of his son, Branch. According to Elda, she met Debbie Harry "in 1973." Elda says, "I saw her in 1973, waitressing at Max's one night" and asked her to join a new band she was putting together (PL879). But Harry recalled that she worked at Max's in 1969 (see page two).

Elda had previously formed a band called Pure Garbage with Holly Woodlawn providing vocals. After playing at the Monday talent night of the nightclub, Reno Sweeney, the owner of the club asked Holly to appear as a solo act and the band split up. Elda formed another band called The Stilettos with Debbie Harry doing vocals. They made their debut in early October, 1973 at the Boburn Tavern. (PL897)

According to Chris Stein, Holly and Elda "had the loft upstairs, so they asked the owner if they could perform in the pool room at the back." (PL907 of 6102) According to Elda, Holly did the lighting, "holding a spotlight with a red gel while standing on the bar." (PL907) Chris Stein met Debbie Harry at their second gig at the Boburn. She arrived with Elda and Eric Emerson. (PL916) (PL925) After finding out he was a musician Debbie asked him to join the group. (PL934) Debbie Harry has also said that she met "Chris when he was a bass player for Eric Emerson. He would go down on his knees and everything; he was really different as a bass player than he is as a guitarist." (PL977)

Eric Emerson shows off his "Stilletoes" tattoo.
(Although Elda pluralized the name of the band without the additional "e" - as in "The Stilletos" - the "e" was included in Eric's tattoo)

According to Debbie, Eric met Barbara Winter - the ex-wife of Edgar Winter - by the end of October 1973. It was while he was living with Winter that he died in 1975. Debbie recalls that Barbara and Eric had met by the time of a New York Dolls Halloween gig in 1973. Although not billed on the Village Voice ad for the gig, he apparently performed onstage and later that evening had to be "bailed out" by Barbara after his car was stopped by police.

Village Voice ad, October 25, 1973, p. 66

Debbie Harry :

By now Eric had met Barbara Winter - ex of Edgar - and had moved out of Chris's apartment to a loft up the street from Max's. He had originally run into her at a party but she was with another man and had given Eric her card. A few weeks later he went to the Doll's Halloween party at the Waldorf Astoria dressed like an angel, with gold wings over a gold lamé stretch outfit, wearing gold jewelry and gold glitter on his face and carrying a gold guitar. He got up onstage and was singing along but he was so happy he kept on for too long and the promoter came on to drag him off. Eric hit him over the head with his guitar. Everyone in the audience went "Yaaaaay!" Then Eric charged off in a blue Mustang belonging to the girl he was with and started barreling through the Lincoln Tunnel. I think he was actually bouncing off the walls as he went through, Anyway, the cops picked him up on the other side and were making him walk the straight line in his angel's outfit so he called Barbara Winter and asked her to come bail him out. After that, they started hanging around together. She helped support him and was very nice. They lived in that loft for a couple of years." (DHB14)

By November, Holly Woodlawn, having split from Elda's pre-Stillettos band, Pure Garbage, was being advertised as a solo act at Reno Sweeneys:

Village Voice ad, November 1, 1973

In November 1973, there was a brief mention of Eric in Village Voice which claimed he was "singing with his new band Angel." Dan Nooger wrote in the November 1, 1973 issue of the Village Voice (p. 50), "Ran into Eric Emerson (Formerly of the Magic Tramps and now playing guitar and singing with his new band Angel) on the way into Mott the Hoople's midnight show at Radio City last Friday and we were both wearing the same gold eye shadow - mine subtly applied by a lady friend, his...?"

The Magic Tramps continued to perform without Eric. In the same issue of the Village Voice that Eric was mentioned in, there's also an ad for the Tramps and Eric isn't included on the ad, although Warhol star Geri Miller, the stripper in Trash, was part of the show. She had sometimes performed with Tramps in their previous shows.

Village Voice ad, November 1, 1973

There was a resurgence of interest in the Magic Tramps after Sesu Coleman started a website about them in 2005. Most recently, one of their songs was used in episode 2 of the HBO series Vinyl (2016) and their name mentioned in episode 9. Although the Tramps were often seen as Eric's backing band at Max's Kansas City when they played there in 1971 (see page four), they participated in Max's 50th Anniversary celebration in 2015 as their own band, with a guest vocalist and two of their original members - Sesu Coleman on drums and Lary Chaplan on violin. Video here.

Debbie Harry kept in contact with Eric after he left the band in in 1973 and thought that his new love interest, Barbara Winter, was both supportive and "nice."

Debbie Harry:

She [Barbara] helped support him and was very nice. They lived in the loft for a couple of years. One time Eric was stoned out of his mind, lying naked and getting screwed in front of a picture window on the second floor overlooking Park Avenue South. It was during lunch hour, and hundreds of business people on their lunch breaks gathered to watch. Traffic was backed up for blocks and the police were hammering on the door. Eric also used to rehearse there, but his space was right up against the wall of an apartment building so, try as they did to soundproof the walls, they could never make the neighbors happy enough. (DHB14)

Eric's behaviour became increasingly erratic. The attention he had got for being a Warhol superstar wore thin over time, although Debbie Harry remained friends with him. The following year, in August 1974, the Stilettos split up. (DHB14)

The same month, Sesu met with Eric at Barbara Winter's apartment to try and put together a theatrical show. According to Sesu Coleman, "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." (This Ain't the Summer of Love)

Eric continued to get "progressively crazy" according to Debbie Harry.

Debbie Harry:

One night, Eric, Chris, and Barbara went to see The Dictators at Popeye's Spinach Factory in Brooklyn. Eric got raging drunk, jumped up onstage with The Dogs, and tore his shirt off. Then The Dictators came onstage and their big fat roadie jumped on too and sang "Wild Thing." That was Dick Manitoba. Everybody in the room was completely drunk. It was like a fraternity party. After that Manitoba sang with The Dictators. Meanwhile Eric was getting progressively crazier. He would go out in an expensive suit but get so frenzied he would rip it to shreds. He also developed a tendency to bite everybody. (DHB21)

With the emergence of Punk bands like The Dictators, glitter bands and gender-bending cabaret-based acts seemed like left-overs from the '60s. Camp was on its way out and Punk was on its way in. And Eric wasn't "Punk." Debbie Harry later recalled the beginnings of Punk in 1974, referring to it as "the non-period of punk:"

Debbie Harry:

Nineteen seventy-four was the non-period of punk. Television, The Ramones, and us, either as Angel and the Snake (for two gigs) or with no name, were just playing around. Then we did two or three gigs with a couple of girls, Julie and Jackie, and we all had blond hair so that's when we started fooling around with the name Blondie... We played at a club uptown, Brandy's 11, with Tish and Snookie Bellomo, who later went on to open Manic Panic and star in the Sic Fuks. That's when we were Blondie and the Banzai Babies. Tish and Snookie sang backup with us, on and off over over a year and a half. (DHB21)

In c. late 1974/1975 Eric and Barbara Winter moved to a hi-rise apartment on the Lower West Side by the river. According to Debbie Harry, "When they moved out Eric ran around the loft, single-handedly destroying all the work he had done to it. He punched holes in the walls with his bare fists and smashed everything up. (DHB16)

It was while Eric was living with Barbara on the Lower West Side that he died in May 1975. But how did he die?

to page seven

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