American writer and cultural critic Glenn O’Brien passed away at the age of 70 in April of 2017. To many, O’Brien wasn’t simply a figure that wrote about pop culture, he was pop culture. Blending music, art and style, seamlessly bridging both mainstream and underground, O’Brien was a trailblazer that paved the way for so much – including publications like this one.
He is perhaps best known as the host of TV Party, a late-night, public-access T.V. show that he hosted in New York, where stars and downtown legends like David Bowie, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat would drop by to chat, with O’Brien rolling “rasta-sized joints” in between zany skits. A personality both onscreen and on the page, TV Party eventually fizzled out in the early 80s and O’Brien went on to enjoy a fruitful career writing for some of the U.S.’s best publications, with his mix of rapier wit and genuine wisdom gracing the pages of GQ, The New Yorker, ArtForum and HighTimes – where he first coined the term “Editor at Large”.
As TV Party was nearing its end, O’Brien also wrote the screenplay for Downtown 81, which starred a teenage Basquiat, and he also spent some time as a stand-up comic. Indeed, simply rhyming off the various job titles O’Brien has held is enough to leave you breathless – “I like to keep busy,” he quipped in his typical deadpan fashion in a New York Times profile in 2015.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, O’Brien went on to study at Georgetown University, and later at Columbia. He then moved to New York where, in 1971, Andy Warhol duly appointed him as the first editor of Interview Magazine. “They thought, ‘Let’s get some nice clean-cut college kids who aren’t amphetamine addicts and see if they can run the magazine,’” O’Brien later remarked.
During his time at Interview, O’Brien was an early champion of punk, writing an influential music column titled ‘Glenn O’Brien’s Beat’. In 1974, he also started his own band, Konelrad, which he described as “the world’s first socialist-realist rock band.” The band’s songs were often a reflection of both O’Brien’s political outlook but also his love of sardonic humour, with titles such as ‘Industrial Accident’, ‘Seize the Means of Production’ and ‘Hardcore Melt Down’.
O’Brien would later dabble in the world of advertising and art direction, serving as the creative director of advertising at Barneys before going on to devise some of Calvin Klein’s most iconic and, at the time, controversial campaigns – including the Kate Moss-fronted commercial that was subsequently banned. “His cross-pollination between music, fashion and art has always been a huge influence on what I do and how I think,” said Rob Meyers, art director and editor of Johnson Magazine, adding that it was O’Brien’s work with Calvin Klein that inspired him to later work with the brand. “Working at Calvin, editing Madonna's legendary Sex book and sitting as Creative Director at Island Records are all truly iconoclastic moments,” he added.
But while O’Brien would wear many hats throughout a career that spanned almost five decades, writing remained a constant throughout. An avuncular aesthete, he had the rare ability to marry both style and substance, to the point he made them look like one and the same. It was this quality that led to him being first Details’ and then GQ’s ‘Style Guy’, a column in which he would dish out life advice under the guise of fashion guidance, never divorcing style from the politics of how we dress. Indeed, much of O’Brien’s published work has dealt with the interplay between masculinity and aesthetics – an editor had originally planned to call Style Guy ‘Your Gay Friend’, the only problem being that O’Brien wasn’t gay.
Through Style Guy – which he would later use as a title for one of his books – O’Brien dispelled the idea that talking about menswear was in any way linked to sexuality. The fact that men actually feel comfortable talking about brogues and button downs, hype sneakers and box-logos with one another today is testament to O’Brien’s influence on not only the way men dress, but also the dialogue that surrounds it. In a way, he fathered a glut of current-day menswear-centric publications. “Glenn anticipated so much of what we do today in media (and) culture,” wrote Interview Magazine’s current Executive Editor, Chris Wallace. With now-defunct, cult menswear publication Four Pins – of whom O’Brien was a great fan – adding “without glenn o'brien there would have never been four pins rip to one of the biggest legends of our lifetime”.
It was always style, not fashion that O’Brien loved, and he was adamant that there is a distinction between the two. “When I was young nobody wore designer clothes,” he once said. “People had their own personal style. Today fashion has taken over what style once was. Style is what makes you different to others. Fashion is what makes you the same. I think it’s very important not to be fashionable.”
His take on fashion week was similarly acerbic. “Fashion week is ridiculous but I like going because I like seeing all the people that hate each other in the same room, pretending they don’t hate each other,” he wrote in Vestoj last year. He was the Style Guy, and he knew it. When his GQ column was handed to another writer after an acrimonious split in 2015, he retorted, “they could have at least called their replacement the ‘Style Intern.’”
Throughout it all, O’Brien remained resolutely progressive. Even at the age of 70, was an avid tweeter, regular Instagram-user and Supreme-wearer, his zeal for life and never dimmed with time. “We live in this mass, bland society where people tend to not stand out because they’re afraid,” he said in a 2012 interview. O’Brien was the antidote to that; he believed in the power of art and creativity, embraced disruption and modernity. His is a legacy built on individuality and a willingness to try his hand at just about anything. He just so happened to be brilliant at it all.
Follow Calum Gordon on Twitter here @calumtrc