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Wonderboy: The life, loves and death of Eric Emerson

Gary Comenas (2016)

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Eric Emerson died on May 28, 1975.

In Popism, his death in described in the following way:

They found Eric Emerson one early morning in the middle of Hudson Street. Officially, he was labeled a hit-and-run victim, but we heard rumors that he'd overdosed and just been dumped there - in any case, the bicycle he'd been riding was intact. (POP299)

Although written in the first person, as though by Warhol, Popism was written by Pat Hackett. It's not known where she got the information that Eric had overdosed or that his bicycle had been found intact. Or that his body was found "one early morning" on Hudson Street. No source is listed for the information.

A different version of Emerson's death was later recalled by Ron Tavel who had written many of Warhol's early "scenarios:"

Ronald Tavel:

In May 1975 he either O'D' ed on heroin or was murdered, his body carelessly tossed into the street and his bicycle broken and thrown beside it to simulate a traffic accident. Couldn't have fooled a rookie nark, but there was no investigation." (Ronald Tavel, "Jail," publication date unknown - a written introduction to a Warhol film called "Jail" which was, according to Tavel, filmed Summer 1967. The introduction was written after Warhol's death.)

And David Bourdon wrote the following in his biography of Warhol (1989):

David Bourdon:

In May 1975, Eric Emerson, the scintillating star of Chelsea Girls, Lonesome Cowboys, and a thousand shenanigans in the back room of Max's Kansas City, was found dead at age thirty-one near the West Side Highway, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run driver. Eric (who for a period in the early 1970s, had lived with Jane Forth and fathered a son by her) was known as a reckless bicycle rider who paid little attention to traffic as he sped, yodeling, thought the canyons of Manhattan. But the bicycle alongside his body was unscratched, leading friends to suspect that perhaps he had overdosed elsewhere and had been deposited in the street to simulate an accident. (DB347)

His version is similar to the version produced by Ultra Violet in her biography which was published a year before Bourdon's book.

Ultra Violet:

Eric Emerson, the pretty, psychedelic playboy who liked both pretty boys and pretty girls and fathered four children, was found dead near the West Side Highway early one morning in May 1975; he lay next to his bicycle, which was found unscratched. (UV248)

Ultra Violet does not give her source and her book contains a considerable amount of inaccuracies.

Victor Bockris gave a slightly different version in his biography of Warhol which was published the same year as Bourdon's book:

Victor Bockris:

In May Eric Emerson, who had starred in Chelsea Girls and Heat, was found dead on a downtown street of a heroin overdose. Lately he had been attaching 30-pound weights to his legs and bicycling furiously up to the Factory in between drinking his own piss at Max's, but became morose when no one picked up on his antics any more. (LD388)

Again, there is no source for the information. It's doubtful that Eric was bicycling to "the Factory." In 1974 Warhol's operations moved to 860 Broadway and he had instructed his staff to stop answering the phone with "the Factory." The original silver Factory had ceased to exist in 1968, after Warhol moved his operations to 33 Union Square West. There was no reason for Eric to bicycle to 860 Broadway because he wasn't involved in any of Warhol's projects in 1975.

Victor Bockris wrote in another book, Up-tight:The Velvet Underground Story, published in 1983, that "Eric Emerson died form [sic] a heroin overdose in 1976." (UT232) But Eric died in 1975. No source listed in that book either.

Most of the above accounts of Eric's death mention a bicycle. But neither of the newspaper articles reproduced on the website of The Magic Tramps about Eric's death say that a bicycle was found near his body. The New York Post reported Eric's death in their June 4th, 1975 issue. The article included comments by Eric's ex-partners, Barbara Winter and Jane Forth.

There is no mention that Eric was on a bicycle when he was hit by a car. The article specifically says that he was killed "while crossing the street." Ronnie Cutrone is quoted as saying that Eric like to do outrageous things like "yodelling while riding along the West Side Highway," but he does not say that Eric was on his bike when he was hit. It does not specifically say that he was found on Hudson Street - just that he "was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street somewhere between his apartment at 80 North Moore Street and the Market Diner at West and Laight Sts." It also does not say they found his body early in the morning as claimed in Popism. It says that the "Police said the time of the accident was 3 p.m."

The next day, an article about his death appeared in the Soho Weekly News which also differed from the account given in Popism:

The Soho Weekly News, Thursday, June 5, 1975 (Magic Tramps website)

The article notes, like the Post, that it was a hit and run. Although the author says that the last time the journalist "ever saw him," Eric was "whooping down lower Fifth Avenue" on his bicycle, he or she does not say anything about him being on a bicycle when he was killed. It's unknown who the journalist, D.F., is.

Eric's bicycle riding was also mentioned in Debbie Harry's version of events. As previously noted, Harry, like Eric, was also a heroin user at various times during her life. She appears to have been at Eric's flat the day that he died:

Debbie Harry:

One night we were over at Eric's apartment working on a tape of Heart of Glass on his Teac four-track tape recorder, when he suddenly staggered out of he kitchen looking ashen. He looked even more distraught and sad when we left. Being satisfied drove him crazy in the end, because he had everything so he didn't care about anything anymore. He used to go out jogging every day, and did feats of physical endurance like strapping twenty-pound weights on each ankle and then bicycling up to the Factory. The next day we were sitting around the house just after we woke up when Barbara called with the bad news. 'Oh, Eric got hit by a truck.' He had been a good friend and inspiration to so many people. We didn't quite understand what had happened, but we went up to a party/wake held for him and saw a lot of people from the earlier glitter days. (DHB31)

Debbie's version was published before Victor Bockris' accounts in the two books by him mentioned previously - his biography of Warhol and Up-tight:The Velvet Underground Story. The book that it comes from, Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie, was co-authored by Bockris. It's difficult to think of a junkie jogging every day and strapping weights to his ankle. But note in the quote that although Harry says that Eric looked ashen and "sad," she does not claim it had anything to do with the jogging or weights. The mention of jogging and bicycling really has no relevance to what comes before or after it in the quote. Debbie is saying that they were at Eric's apartment one night when Eric came out of the kitchen looking ashen and then the next day they got the news that he had been hit by a truck. There is nothing in the news stories reproduced above from The Magic Tramps website to indicate that a truck was involved. Perhaps the most telling comment in Harry's quote is when she says "We didn't quite understand what had happened." It's doubtful that Eric was looking ashen because he had overdosed as people who die from overdosing die suddenly. They turn blue and die. Eric was still alive when she left - at least according to her account.

Another theory about Eric's death was that he died in Lou Reed's flat and that his body was moved in order to protect Reed. About Eric, Sesu Coleman notes that "Mickey Ruskin - owner of Max's Kansas City - thought the world of him - as did Lou Reed & almost everyone who knew him." (Punk Globe interview) Barbara Winter mentions Reed in the New York Post article (above) when she says that "Lou Reed will have a song written by Eric on his next album." Krysteen also met Lou Reed when she lived in New York with Eric.

On November 14, 2009 I received an email from someone calling themselves "Billy Smith" who quoted from Popism about Eric's death and then wrote "The true story was he OD [sic] in Lou Reed's apt. on Spring Street and Lou Reed with the help of a friend put him out on Hudson Street with his bike. Eric and I used to hang out and I remember one night at a summer loft party in Soho we both went out on the fire escape and gave each other a blow job - true story." (Email November 14, 2009 05:53)

I wrote back and asked "How do you know that Lou Reed was involved - that he was there at the time?" "Billy Smith" replied, "A friend of Lou Reed told me when it all happen [sic]. It was told to me that Eric and a few guys were there for a day all doing heavy drugs. It was also said to me that Eric was looking for a place to do his drugs and ended up at Reed's place and Eric OD [sic] in Reed's apt. Reed did not want the publicity and moved the body out to the street with a help of friends during the late night." (Email November 14, 2009 17:23)

In his first email, in the "reply to" section, "Billy Smith" had a different email address listed than the one in the "From" section. The "reply to" email address was "email@billyamato.com." That information did not appear on the second email, after I had asked for more details. Information about Billy Amato Smith appears on the discomusic site here. According to that website "Billy Amato Smith was the V.P. at 20th Century Fox Records from approximately 1974 onwards. He had a major hand in promoting such Disco artists as Barry White who was perhaps the label's biggest star. Amato would be frequently seen at various discotheques in and around New York keeping his finger on the pulse of the Disco scene." He has his own website here. Scrolling down on that page, is the information that he also worked with The Young Rascals in the 1960s and other pre-disco groups. In other words he was someone who was very much involved with the record industry and it is possible that he was told that about Reed.

Reed was, like Eric, a heroin user. He knew Eric from the Warhol days. They were both part of the original silver Factory. Although Eric is mentioned only briefly, if at all in, Reed biographies and Reed is hardly mentioned in online accounts of Eric's life, it has been rumoured that Reed's song "Street Hassle" is about Eric's death. Although "Street Hassle" is the story of a woman who overdoses, could it be that the female was actually a bisexual male, Eric Emerson? The lyrics at the end of the song appear to lament the death of a male.

In the song, Reed sings "Waltzing Matilda whipped out her wallet/the sexy boy smiled in dismay/She took out four twenties 'cause she liked round figures." and then continues with him making love to her gently but suddenly it's noticed that she isn't breathing: "Hey, that cunt's not breathing/I think she's had too much/of something or other, hey, man, you know what I mean?/I don't mean to scare you/but you're the one who came here/and you're the one who's gotta take her when you leave... you know it could be a hassle/trying to explain this all to a police officer about how it was that your old lady got herself stiffed/And it's not like we could help/but there wasn't nothing no on could do/and if there was, man, you know I would have been the first/But when someone turns that blue/well, its a universal truth/and then you just know that bitch will never fuck again/By the way, that's really some bad shit/that you came to our place with...."

Reed's lyrics clearly describe an overdose (turning blue) caused by "bad shit" (heroin) and that the death would be a hassle to explain to the police. The song eerily continues "... why don't you grab your old lady by the feet/and just lay her out in the darkest street/and by morning, she's just another hit and run."

Although Reed uses "she" to describe the person who has overdosed, he changes the pronoun to "he" when Reed laments the death at the end of the song: "but, oh, how I miss him, baby." (The full lyrics to the song are here.)

There are aspects of Reed's version that appear to agree with another version of Eric Emerson's death - the version that was eventually told to me by Krysteen, with whom I began this article. As our email correspondence progressed over time, Krysteen managed to finally make connect with Eric's family. Although the family lived in New Jersey when Eric was raised, they had since moved to Tennessee. According to Krysteen "After Eric's death they sold their place in Jersey and followed Eric's sister who was preg. at the time to Tennessee..." (10 June 2003 06:03) A reunion was held which included Krysteen, Krysteen and Eric's daughter Monique, Elda Gentile (the mother of Eric's child Branch), and numerous other family members. It was at that reunion that another version of Eric's death emerged.

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