18 May 2019 | Michael Kaplan | New York Post
‘Without Barbara Rubin, the Velvet Underground’s first album might not have ever seen the light of day.
Allen Ginsberg would not have headlined London’s first “happening” and Bob Dylan would likely have missed out on writing “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
In 1963, Rubin was 17 and freshly sprung from a mental hospital when she entered the East Village bohemian scene. The Queens native proved to be a catalyst that shaped the careers and personal lives of Andy Warhol, Dylan, Ginsberg and Lou Reed, among others.
“Barbara was the moving force and coordinator between us all,” Reed — notoriously stingy with his praise — once said.
Rubin’s wild sex- and drug-fueled life is chronicled in the documentary “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground,” premiering at IFC Center on Friday.
As director Chuck Smith told The Post, “[Rubin] was fearless and bold in ways that women back then were not.”
Growing up chubby in Cambria Heights, she was encouraged by her middle-class parents — a homemaker and a businessman — to take diet pills. But Rubin quickly realized that two tabs made her feel better than one.
From there she began abusing speed, ran away from home at around age 15 and reportedly hitchhiked to the West Coast, where she dropped acid with writer and psychedelics enthusiast Aldous Huxley.
Fed up, Barbara’s parents placed her in a mental hospital with the hope of calming the girl down. By 17 she was fit for release but only if she was employed by a responsible adult.
That was family friend Jonas Mekas, founder of the Film-Makers Cooperative, a distributor of avant-garde movies. Being in Mekas’ orbit led Rubin to a string of free-spirited characters.
He hired her as an assistant and gave her a movie camera, which the teen used to make an artsy pornographic film called “C–ks and C–ts” (later tamped down to “Christmas on Earth”). Critic J. Hoberman likened it to “an acid freak-out.”
Rubin met Warhol at the Cooperative and introduced him to a Lower East Side band she had befriended: the Velvet Underground, led by Reed.
Warhol went on to manage the Velvets, produce their first album (for which he designed the famous cover, with its peel-off banana sticker) and make them the house band at his Factory art studio.
During early Velvet Underground performances, footage of Rubin’s outré movie was projected onto the group.
“[Drummer] Maureen Tucker would look behind her and see a giant vagina or penis,” said Smith. “She got upset and said, ‘Don’t do that again.’ ”
One person who loved the movie was poet Ginsberg, who met Rubin at a free-love commune in the East Village. Although he was known to prefer men and was twice Rubin’s age, he slept with the teen.
Rubin, meanwhile, not only made Ginsberg cut his famous beard — after saying that it was ugly — she did the barbering herself.
In the spring of 1965, Rubin put together the International Poetry Incarnation at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which featured Ginsberg and his posse of Beat poets. The event is earmarked as London’s first “happening” and was one of the triggers that led to the Summer of Love two years later.
It’s also believed that Rubin introduced Ginsberg to his future collaborator Bob Dylan, with whom she also had an affair. (Rubin can be seen in a photo on the back cover of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” album, running her hand through his hair.)
The two men went on to perform together and record a cultishly popular album, originally released as “First Blues” and recently reissued as “The Last Word on First Blues.”
Less successful was Rubin’s introduction of Dylan to Warhol.
“Barbara thought [they] would have this amazing situation,” said Ara Osterweil, a Rubin scholar and professor at McGill University. But Dylan was unimpressed and came to view Warhol as a phony.
Warhol, on the other hand, was thrilled to have Dylan at the Factory. As stated in the doc, by Warhol’s assistant Joey Freeman, “Andy was all atwitter. Bob was a pop musician and in the [pop culture] hierarchy pop musicians were [elevated over artists].”
Dylan also connected at the Factory with socialite Edie Sedgwick, and wrote the song “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” about her.
By the start of 1968, Rubin had overstayed her welcome at the Factory, having clashed with Paul Morrissey, the Factory’s in-house filmmaker.
“He didn’t like any strong, talented, aggressive women coming into his area,” said Freeman.
Feeling the need to escape the avant-garde world, she determined to buy a Catskills farm and run it as a poetry retreat.
Ginsberg, seeing it as a spot where his lover Peter Orlovsky could kick hard drugs, put up the money to buy the place.
But it quickly became clear that these downtown hipsters were ill-equipped to run a farm. Hypodermic needles littered the grounds and they messed up the milking schedule of their single cow.
And then there was the personal drama. Rubin had also set her heart on having a child with Ginsberg.
“Things became difficult after she came to terms with [him rejecting her],” Gordon Ball, a friend of Rubin’s, told The Post. “I still see her weeping in her pink nightgown in front of the [farm’s] garage.”
Perhaps driven by her baby fixation, Rubin visited a nearby orphanage run by an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect in Sharon Springs, NY. In the movie, a friend recalls the moment: “All of a sudden, 20 kids came running out of the [orphanage] and jumped all over her like she was the messiah.”
Rubin announced, “I’m getting my suitcase and I’m staying here.”
“Our jaws just dropped. It was so powerful and so strange and so mystical,” the friend said. “Everybody knew, Barbara was gone.”
Rubin became one of the first women to study Kabbalah’s mystical teachings. She also wed twice, with Dylan in attendance at one of the ceremonies. There, the singer met the charismatic Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld and began studying with him — leading to yarmulke-wearing Dylan performing with Harry Dean Stanton at a Chabad telethon.
Rubin’s first marriage, an arranged one, lasted less than two years. With her second husband, the Judaica artist Isaac Besancon, she moved to a yeshiva in Aix-les-Bains, France, in the mid-1970s. The two had four children.
Forsaking her previous life, she asked Mekas to burn copies of her film (he didn’t).
In September 1980, Rubin died tragically: After giving birth to her fifth child, she contracted a fatal infection from a botched cesarean procedure. She was 35.
While her children and former husband did not comment for the documentary or this story, an e-mail sent from Rubin’s eldest son to director Smith makes clear that her legacy lives on.
“I have a girl who I named after my mother. A few years ago I noticed that when she sees certain things, she sees [them] differently than we see [them],” he wrote. “This evening my older daughter called me and had the same voice as my mother’s in the film.”
To this day, Rubin’s friends wonder what her next act might have been.
“There would have been an endpoint to all the child-rearing,” Ball said. “There’s no telling what she would have done at that point. She could have come back to make art. Or maybe she would have thought that her children were the ultimate art.”