Icons / April 2017

Like Art: The Life of Glenn O'Brien

Celebrating the original Style Guy and late, great renaissance man.

Glenn O’Brien, 2013. Photo by Carly Erickson/BFA/REX/Shutterstock.

The great Glenn O’Brien passed away at the weekend. The last Tweet he fired off, six weeks back, read “Andy Warhol died 30 years ago today. I remember thinking, ‘Whose opinion will I care about now?’” That’s kinda how I felt when I learned of O’Brien’s death. Because, though we never actually met, O’Brien’s opinion mattered to me. And so, so many others. He was the ultimate arbiter and bellwether of modern manly cool.

When we launched The Rake in 2008, O’Brien was one of the first people I sent a copy to, hoping for feedback, advice, maybe a kind word or two. Still serving as US GQ’s sage advice-dispensing Style Guy at the time, I’d been reading and gleaning wisdom from O’Brien’s writing for years. Hoping to be a writer and editor half as good as he was one day. He was a hero, seriously, an idol to me. Generously, he deigned to respond on email — though it’s lost in the cyber sands of time, I vividly recall it read: “Nice work. It’s good to see classic style making a comeback. Though I hope the same can’t be said for wearing watches over shirt cuffs.” (We’d done a shoot inspired by Gianni Agnelli’s stylistic quirks, including this trademark move.) That “Nice work” remark? Total ‘Praise from Caesar.’ It meant the world to me.

More recently we’d shared a little social media interaction. I’m not ashamed to say I’d Tweeted a few things that I’d rather hoped would gain O’Brien’s attention — one of which, a plug for a story on this website listing the most rakish album covers of all time, got retweeted not only by O’Brien, but Andrew Loog Oldham, the man who managed the Rolling Stones’ early career. (Small thing, but yeah, still, c’mon, utter fanboy OMG moment for me.) O’Brien claimed, with “100 percent certainty,” that it was his tighty-whiteys depicted in the Warhol-photographed and -designed sleeve for the Stones’ Sticky Fingers LP, the album featured atop that rakish sleeve-art list.  

Glenn O’Brien got his professional start, aged 23, working with Warhol as editor of the pop artist’s groundbreaking Interview magazine in 1970. He subsequently became New York bureau chief for Rolling Stone, edited classy skin mag Oui for a spell, then invented the title of ‘editor-at-large’ while helming High Times (working ‘at large’, he said, because he was too paranoid about getting arrested to base himself at the offices of the viper’s bible). In the late ’70s he launched the public access television program TV Party, where over a four-year broadcast period, he hosted key cultural icons of the time including his buddy Basquiat, Bowie, Byrne, Debbie Harry, the B-52s, Kid Creole, George Clinton, Nile Rodgers, Iggy Pop, Steven Meisel, Mick Jones, Kraftwerk, and Robert Mapplethorpe. (O’Brien once advised, “People remember a good listener better than a good talker.” Wise words to keep in mind, whether you’re conducting an interview or simply holding a conversation.)

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.