Bjork Brawl

by Thomas Beller


436 W 15th St New York, NY 10011-7002

Neighborhood: Chelsea

A glass came flying through the air and smashed against the wall behind me. It appeared to be aimed at the DJ. He was standing next to me at the end of the bar.

The guy who threw it was part of a group of men, slightly foreign, drunk, eccentric, who I had imagined, because of their accents, to be Icelandic. We were at Passerby, the bar attached to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, a gallery representing notable, mostly British, artists, including Chris Offili, whose portrait of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung aroused so much of the Mayor Guliani’s ire when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. The place was closed for the night for a private party; we had all just seen Bjork perform with her new band, if you can call them that, at an astonishingly intimate show in a chapel up in Riverside Church.

Bjork and her friends, who happen to include several of her fellow Icelanders, were having celebratory drinks. She was wearing white.

A moment later came another glass, a wine glass again, and this one seemed to be on a collision course with my head. Maybe it was the drinks I’d had, or the slightly surreal light blinking up from the bar’s floor (Piot Uklanski, designed it, a la Saturday Night Fever), or maybe it was the sheer novelty of seeing an airborn wine glass so cavalierly chucked, but it appeared to be moving in slow motion. I moved to the side, a slight gesture not unlike letting someone pass by on the subway, and the glass smashed against the wall.

The sound of breaking glass is usually quite arresting, and there was a momentary lull in the room, but the music still pulsed along, sweeping things forward.

A little while earlier the glass thrower – skeevy and rude – had stuck his head into the face of the woman standing next to me, the journalist Lynn Hirschberg, literally poking her in the eye with his nose. Attempting to calm him, I gave him a one arm around the rib cage squeeze and a smile that said, chill out.

“Ouch man, Ouch! I have this pain, this soreness from surfing accident,” he said. An Icelandic surfer, I thought. Seemed strange.

The guy throwing the glasses was not Icelandic, it later turned out. He is Turkish, his name is Hakan, and he is the owner of another bar across town, Sweet and Vicious. According to a lengthy account subsequently published by Jennifer Stroup, he is a notorious asshole. But none of this was apparent at the moment.

What was apparent was that a strange looking drunk guy in an orange NYC Sanitation Dept T-shirt had picked up a bottle, a wine bottle, and had just thrown it, again at the direction of the DJ. It flew through the air, arcing over the entire length of the bar, turning over a few times, and bounced into the mixing board, causing the CD to skip, and the music to go dead for a few seconds.

There were three subtexts to all this:

1) When the first glass hit the wall, I felt a pang of excitement. It was just such an absurd, asshole thing to do I almost respected it. Plus there is something faintly festive about the sound of breaking glass– Greeks break plates on their heads, Jews smash a glass underfoot when they get married, Russians fling them into the fireplace after a toast… who knows? I thought, maybe Icelanders throw them against the wall when they get happy!

2) This was a Bjork event, and it seemed incongruous that people were throwing bottles. We had all just witnessed an intense and spiritual performance in a chapel, and here was now with friends and colleagues having a little party, and it did not seem appropriate that glasses should be smashing into walls and splintering in shards all around her like shrapnel. Bjork is not a violent person, or rather, she is an extremely intense person, perhaps capable of violence ( she did famously slug a Japanese reporter in the face but that was an act of a mother protecting her child,) but clearly not a fan of gratuitous loutishness. So, this seemed weird.

Passerby is part owned and fully operated by Toby Cecchini, a lanky, handsome, non-violent sort of guy who often had a copy of Harper’s or Granta sitting beside the bottles of Stoli.

Toby had his first taste of literary notoriety when he kept a diary for about his activities behind the bar. At least one publisher was aroused enough to approach him about expanding the diaries into a book. One story involved Toby’s reaction to a bunch of arty youths who stole bottles of wine from behind his bar.

He wrote that he confronted them about the theft and then:
“The kid closest to me, with a blondish fall of bangs and tiny round wire rims, turns to face me. He takes an exaggerated drag of his cigarette and says contemptuously, “You need to fucking chill out, man,” then blows the smoke in my face.

“Unwise of him. I don’t even think, I just explode. Snatching his hair up in a big handful, I yank him off his stool and begin dragging him through the bar. He lets out a muffled howl and flails at my hands and arms, but his feet are trailing behind him and he can’t stand up. His friends all leap up from the table and begin pulling at me. The whole improbable cortège lurches toward the door. One of the girls is crying, fumbling with a wad of money, trying to push some 20s at me. I shriek that I don’t want her money. The other customers in the bar, oblivious to what caused the fracas, break out into applause as I heave the assemblage through the door.”

When I came by the bar a few weeks ago I congratulated Toby on his diaries and the enthusiasm they provoked, particularly the violent bit; I happen to notice a new assistant, a young guy, skinny and attractive, just like Toby, but a little smaller and younger, a mini-Toby.

It was this guy, John, who was now charged with single handedly running the bar, as Toby happened to be out sick. That diary of Toby’s was eventually turned into a book, and it is very good at describing the panic of being “in the weeds,” as John clearly was now. I was already caught up a little in his drama; the anxiety crept out in a number of ways, including the way he shook his martini’s – with unbelievably violent nervous energy. There was a crush at the bar and he could barely keep up, but he was hanging in there, doing a good job.

Then the first wine glass arched over his head and smashed into the wall. Another, and then the bottle.

John picked up the phone and, with trembling fingers, called the police. Some people at the far end of the bar tried to calm the rowdy guy in the orange T-shirt. The music came back on, and there was about a minute of calm. I looked over to Bjork. She seemed only mildly distracted by the scene, a disturbance; she was mellow, all in white, her black hair blowsy.

Then the next glass sailed through the air and hit the wall behind me, shattering quite loudly. John’s shoulder’s were extremely tight, he had been extremely tense and anxious and as the glass flew I wondered if the fact that his boss and the founder of the bar had made a name of himself tossing out unwanted elements had entered his mind. Surely he could have used Toby around at this moment.

Whatever he had thought of it, I can say with certainty that when the glass smashed against the wall, followed by a rapid volley of smashing glasses, he did not think about anything at all. He simply snapped, his narrow bony shoulders flew down the bar, and immediately he was a blur of elbows, or more specifically his right elbow, as he pumped about six or seven punches into the face of the drunken glass thrower. Bang bang bang, like that.

The guy tried to cover up, but John got in a few shots, no question. He had snapped, and now he needed to unleash. The whole thing lasted about fifteen seconds before John was restrained and the guy’s friends pulled him out of the bar.

For a moment it seemed like that was the end of it. I ascertained that not only was this guy not Icelandic, he had nothing to do with the party. He was the owner of a bar across town, Sweet and Vicious. His one connection to the event might have been the fact that a few nights earlier, Bjork and some friends including Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel, of Matmos, the electronic duo who recorded a lot of the percussion tracks on her record and who performed with her at Riverside Church, had stumbled into the bar quite by chance and spent some time drinking.

So he was this intruding villain, a bummer, but now he was gone.

Then there was a very disconcerting sound; something hit the tinted glass window that front the bar. It was a very loud and ominous sound. The night had started in a kind of castle, the mood now prevailed, we were under seige. There were several hits, and we all clustered together instinctively; then the black glass window shattered, a hole right through it. Glass everywhere. It was mayhem. People poured towards the door, there was a rumor he had a gun, he seemed to reach into the SUV parked across the street and shove something into his belt behind his back.

John called the cops and explained, as calmly as possible, that there was a man standing outside pitching rocks at the window of his bar. Soon the cops arrived. The Sweet and Vicious Owner, Hakan, stood there weaving and mumbling and when he saw the cops he tried to walk away. They talked to him. He tried to leave.  In a flash, a police officer had him face down on the hood of a car. He seemed to resist a little. The cop put an elbow into his back, twisted his arm. He calmed, bent over, his ass sticking out. What now?

The rather shocking conclusion to all this is that he was not arrested. Instead he gave his credit card and John billed it 500 dollars. Then one of the cops, an officer Knight (in white satin…), black hair and Queens accent, stood around for a while talking the matter over, while Sweet and Vicious got into his car (driver’s seat) with some friends and drove off, scott free.

“You did the right thing,” said Officer Knight to John. “I could have taken that man to prison, but you would have had no remuneration.”

The party continued. We were all in that peculiar condition of being at once subdued and excited, of having survived an irrational and violent attack and getting another drink.

I stood in a group that included a big black guy in dreads, wearing a trench coat, who had briefly tried to be a peacemaker. He talked about how he went back inside once there was talk of a gun. He wasn’t going to take a bullet, he said, quite reasonably.

“And if it had been me out there, let’s be honest, there wouldn’t have been any talk of credit cards from the cops” he said. We all agreed.

Eventually people started dancing again, the broken glass crunching beneath their feet.

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