I lived with New York underground nightlife legend Clark Render for a period of eighteen months. Although I couldn’t have guessed it at the time, it would ultimately be the last chapter of his life.
Clark was a playwright, drag performer, and lead singer of two New York based punk bands in the 1980s. While his sensibility was firmly entrenched in American counter-culture, he was obsessed with politics and extremely intelligent. He had a fascination with strong female politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Pat Schroeder. A video clip of Clark taken from an early 1990s late night New York cable access show is a perfect example of Clark’s love for Thatcher blended with his punk rock sensibility. While at one time he was involved in multiple facets of New York nightlife, he became increasingly reclusive later in his life. The time I shared with Clark forced an awareness of the realities of aging as a queer artist in New York and the United States’ currently strained health care system. It was also a magical, rare opportunity.
Clark lived in a 2 bedroom apartment on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village for forty years. He moved to New York from Michigan to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I recognized him almost immediately when I met him as half of the drag duo the Duelling Bankheads, who I’d seen in the 1994 film Wigstock. Clark appeared briefly with his comedy partner David Ilku in the film, singing “Born To Be Wild”. Their drag personas were a characterization of Tallulah Bankhead, an aging American actress most famous in the 1950s, who later became somewhat of an underground gay icon. She had distinctive mannerisms, perfectly suited for the theatrical embellishment of drag. Together as the Duelling Bankheads, Clark and David bantered onstage and performed live renditions of rock songs with altered pun lyrics. Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” instead became “It’s a nice day for a dyke wedding” when they performed at a lesbian wedding. Clark and David were a mainstay of New York nightlife throughout the 1990’s, and passed into legendary status for their contributions during the Jackie 60 and early Wigstock eras.
It was as though I was welcomed into a long established New York City tribe of queer elders.
At the end of October 2017, I answered a short, two sentence Craigslist ad posted by someone temporarily giving up their room in a shared Greenwich Village apartment. I set up a meeting for the following day, which is when I first viewed the apartment and met Clark. During the meeting, I recognized a photo of a 1980s New York drag and cabaret legend named International Chrysis in the apartment. I remarked on my observation to the person who had posted the Craigslist ad, who was unaware of who she was. Clark emerged from his room in shock: “I can’t believe you know Chrysis.” Although Chrysis was a downtown celebrity in her day, her story is mostly known now to longtime New Yorkers. Clark told me she had lived in the apartment in the 1980s. That profound shared moment sealed both of our decision that I was clearly meant to live there. I moved in a few days later.
We bonded almost immediately. I heard him say once over the phone to a friend that I was family, and I felt the same. It was as though I was welcomed into a long established New York City tribe of queer elders. Those friends of Clark’s that I am now close with may grimace at the word elder, but I use it with the utmost respect and adoration. Clark was like a quirky longtime New Yorker uncle I could have only dreamt of. The history, legends, and magic were palpably alive in that apartment.
The space itself was not well maintained. Very early in my time there, I realized Clark did everything he could to keep the common areas tidy. He despised being made to feel incapable, so when I attempted to clean, he would intervene. He had very specific ways of doing things; Fabuloso cleaning liquid in a bucket was sloshed on to the extremely worn hard wood floors with a filthy mop. His attempts to clean were moderately effective, but his balance wasn’t great. His mobility had declined in recent years. The long overdue serious deep clean the apartment needed wasn’t possible for him. Nevertheless, I treasure the initial time I lived with Clark the most.
He stayed in his room the majority of time, but he would often cook dinner for us. One memorable meal was filet mignon with sautéed onions, which he loved to prepare. I suspect it was a mainstay from his time working at his father’s chain of diners in Michigan as a teenager. He took great joy in preparing meals for others, afterward we sat together while he shared stories about New York nightlife in the 1980s. He described in great detail his gigs at legendary nightclubs like Limelight and CBGB’s with his band Hagatha, and working in the VIP area at Danceteria with Jackie 60 co-founder Chi Chi Valenti. He shared an incredible story of how he secured a job at a touristy Upper East Side drag supper club called “La Cage Aux Folles”. It was there that he may have met International Chrysis. She performed in the main room, singing cabaret staples while seated on a baby grand piano, he worked as a cocktail waitress in drag. I remember all of the stories he shared in delicious detail.
He shared countless stories, along with his knowledge of music, music history, and New York nightlife history. The value of this experience, shared history between generations of queer artists, now feels more important than ever before.
Although Clark was reclusive, and without a doubt isolated in many ways, he was incredibly generous toward me. He shared countless stories, along with his knowledge of music, music history, and New York nightlife history. The value of this experience, shared history between generations of queer artists, now feels more important than ever before.
On June 1 of this year, the apartment’s lease reverted back to the building’s owners. The forty year legacy of Clark’s apartment, in its physical incarnation anyway, came to an end. The year following his death involved countless battles. The legal side was stressful and costly. The long-neglected repairs would never be addressed by the building owners as long as I lived in the apartment. Even in the final weeks they used unnecessary intimidation tactics despite the agreement in place that I would vacate the apartment. Although I stood my ground and held on as long as possible, I simply didn’t have the means to fight an extended battle in a New York housing court. I was reminded that the apartment itself was a physical space, and what it represented, along with the knowledge and history that Clark shared with me, can continue to be shared forward beyond those walls. This writing is the first time I’m sharing publicly about my time living in the apartment. This is just the beginning.
This playlist is the exact sequence taken from a cassette Clark loved to play in the last few months of his life. “Sunshine” was my nickname for him. I came home to the apartment on a few occasions to music blasting from a barely working audio cassette mini stereo.
Clark’s musical taste was known to be extremely eclectic. His first band in the early 1980s was called Sex in Miami. Their sound could best be described as indie New-Wave. His second band Hagatha might be categorized as indie emo punk.
To people who knew Clark well, some of the songs on this playlist might come as a surprise, given that they’re from the 1960s and 70s. Clark’s musical taste was so wonderfully varied, the scope of his record collection would be difficult for many to imagine. I now understand that it’s in this complex and layered mix that some of the most profound creative taste resides.
I’m acutely aware that many of these are songs Clark listened to in his high school years. According to one friend who was close with Clark at that time, and who I came to know after Clark’s passing, high school was a creative and musically inspiring time for him. So these songs from that era would have been a source of joy (as was blasting music as loudly as possible from his tiny audio cassette stereo).
Clark adored Marianne Faithfull—he often recalled her transition from a cute, innocent 1960s ingenue to the embittered, guttural broad growling “Why’d Ya Do It”. He would take any opportunity to sing that portion of the song to me to prompt a laugh.
Folk singer Melanie was another of Clarks favourite recording artists. She got her start in the early days of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, busking in Washington Square Park. “Lay Down” was probably one of Clark’s favourite songs of all time. Another of my treasured memories was securing Clark a front row seat to a performance of Melanie’s at the music venue “Le Poisson Rouge” in August 2018. He was absolutely gobsmacked. After the show he met Melanie and had a record signed.
The version of “Carolina In My Mind” on this playlist is not the version that was on Clark’s cassette, but I’ve never been able to find the version he had. It was a female solo vocalist, so this version with James Taylor isn’t exact but it completes the playlist.
The other song worth commenting on is “Detroit or Buffalo”, which I envision Clark listened to and loved as a teenager in Michigan. He was surely scheming to leave small town life and move to a big city, probably anywhere other than where he was, which the lyrics of this song articulate beautifully.
About the Author
Jordan King is a nomadic Canadian artist and writer, currently hosting a monthly interview podcast feature for Centre Never Apart’s online magazine. She has worked internationally as a makeup artist for selected clients such as DJ Honey Dijon, as well as on advertising campaigns, runway shows, and fashion editorials, which is on hold due to the COVID19 pandemic.
Feature image by Marti Wilkerson