I never knew Bruce Conner. But I did know a guy named Bruce who hung out at the Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach in 1978, taking pictures. I’d just arrived in San Francisco from Kansas, and the Mabuhay was the place to be. It was a quiet Filipino family restaurant by day and a blasted out punk club every night after midnight, where the Dead Kennedys, the Mutants, the Avengers, the Sleepers, Negative Trend, and U.X.A. took the stage, introduced by a passive-aggressive little man named Dirk Dirksen, who looked and sounded like an aggrieved vacuum cleaner salesman. The scene was fueled mostly by beer, cocaine, Mexican heroin, and a sincere desire for oblivion. It was also extremely physical, involving a lot of breakage of furniture and bones. Dirk was the long-suffering parent, trying to keep the kids from hurting or killing themselves. He failed.
I knew who the artist Bruce Conner was by then, a little. I’d seen A Movie and Report and Crossroads, and I was about to see Valse Triste, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, and Mongoloid at the SF Cinematheque. I’d seen some reproductions of his collages and assemblages in books, and I think I’d even seen some exquisite Angels. But I didn’t connect the artist Bruce Conner with the guy in shades, flashing out of the shadows every night at the Mabuhay. That guy was reserved but not standoffish, and he didn’t act like he was above it all. At 45, he was certainly the oldest person in the room, but we got the sense that he understood what we were doing there. Disintegration of the ego, pre-emption of the apocalypse, turn it up. We didn’t have any answers, but at least we weren’t under Control.
Bruce was on the scene, but not of it. He was drunk and stoned, but on, like the war photographer Hopper played in Apocalypse Now, only quiet, collecting data on the decline of Western Civilization. Twenty-five years later, after I’d moved to New York, I saw Bruce’s photographs from the Mabuhay in a show at Curt Marcus Gallery in Soho. It was called “Dead Punks and Ashes.”
In November 1978, at the height of the Mabuhay period, Connor wrote a letter to his friend Freude Bartlett in which he said, “I don’t have no biography anymore. Used it all up.” It was signed “Born again, Bruce X.”
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss is the author of the forthcoming book Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (The MIT Press, 2020), and Chair of the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.