Of all the downtown New York legends, rising artists, and nightlife personas that I have interviewed, few have been as earnest, open, and welcoming as Brendan Jay Sullivan, aka DJ Vh1, the author of a forthcoming book about his friendship and early collaborations with Lady Gaga while she was still an unknown performer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When I arrived at his book-filled, two-floor Brooklyn home, Sullivan showed me the bed that he constructed out of church pews (also mentioned in his book) and suggested a stroll through his neighborhood, pointing out old-school cocktail lounges and the perfect place to have icy lemonade on a humid July day. A few hours with the impeccably dressed DJ who now primarily works at Hamptons parties made perfectly clear that this was someone who deeply loved New York as well as the heartfelt creation and recounting of stories, hence the nickname Vh1, which he earned as an allusion to the channel’s popular Storytellers show.
Sullivan’s new work Rivington Was Ours: Lady GaGa, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives is a rather wistful, at times hilarious, and thoroughly engrossing tale centered mostly around him, Gaga and her then boyfriend Luc Carl, with whom Sullivan often clashed. Carl (nicknamed “The Darkness”) comes off as an inconsiderate, manipulative and obnoxious poseur who was totally incapable of dealing with Gaga’s enormous talent and drive. More importantly, however, Sullivan expertly captures the gritty glamour of the dense social networks through which Lower East Side gossip is trafficked, what he very aptly calls the “panopticon of downtown.” He beautifully depicts the emotional texture of downtown disappointments and triumphs. In one of his more tender observations, Sullivan notices the following at the bar 151 while meeting with Gaga: “Every so often you could spy through the crowd the blue-green-lit smile of a girl who had just gotten the text she’d waited all night for.”
Sullivan’s account aligns with reports of Gaga’s success that have emerged elsewhere: tales of a young woman who combined a unique talent with an unwavering focus, acute savvy and hunger for her own creative development. Or as Sullivan puts it, “This little girl had the business acumen of a mafia don.” He also fends off the resentful jabs of the downtown hacks whom Gaga has left behind but still accuse her of illegitimately claiming a downtown lineage: “She started so young and worked so diligently that she could have skipped making flyers, mass texting, and the basic hucksterism that most bands go through. And she didn’t.”
I am very curious about the reactions that Gaga and fans around the world will have to Rivington Was Ours. The book reveals some intensely personal details about her relationship with Carl—who inspired her “Money Honey,” “Paparazzi,” and “Yoü and I” tracks—and the private moments of reverie that she shared with Sullivan. But fans will enjoy learning more about the inspiration for songs like “Just Dance” (Sullivan appears in the music video), “Boys Boys Boys,” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich.” And although the most devout members of the Monster fanbase also closely follow the coterie from which Gaga emerged, including Lady Starlight and Semi Precious Weapons, those outside of New York may at times drown in the level of local scene detail that Sullivan provides. The book is also bound to attract fans to the various venues that Sullivan has now embedded in pop music history, although St. Jerome’s and Motor City, two of the locales referred to repeatedly in the book, have now closed. [subscribe2]
About the Reviewer
Victor P. Corona, Ph.D. (victorpcorona.com) is a sociologist at Hofstra University. He is currently writing a book that traces a social and aesthetic lineage from the Warhol Factory to the Club Kids and the current generation of performers, artists, and nightlife personas in New York. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.