Brendan Jay Sullivan remembers Lady Gaga when she was "a shy, quiet girl with dark hair," dating a bartender on New York's Lower East Side. For a year or so, they were good friends, encouraging each other to follow their creative and emotional muses. She danced for his DJ gigs; he helped her build a paper cake, out of which she climbed to sing "Happy Birthday" like Marilyn Monroe.
Like so many scenesters before them, the Lower East Side was their workshop, with the infamous roving Motherfucker parties and the theatrical rock & roll scene that produced Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Sullivan, a writer, DJ, raconteur and former bartender, tells the story of his brief but heady days with Gaga in the new book Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side and the Prime of Our Lives. "Sometimes when things go by so fast, maybe you're gone for a week, and when you come back, that store or restaurant you loved has become a bank," he tells Rolling Stone. "And it's the same with the people in your life."
It seems liked you needed to create an adventure for yourself to have some material.
Absolutely. It did, it did. I would read Esquire the way a gambler reads the daily racing form. I'd read a David Sedaris story, when I was, like, 19 – "Boy, some of his stories come from him being rude to strangers, so I guess this week I'm going to be rude to strangers."
You were writing a novel, and at one point Gaga says to you, "I'm excited for your book." So how does she feel about this book?
I sent the first two copies to her and her dad. But I also promised myself I'd never ask. I don't think she has the same perspective on that adventure as I did. She and her father, they were so focused on getting to the next step, I'm sure they never got to smell the roses in the Rivington days . . . The number one question I get from people is, "What does Gaga think about this?" Which is interesting, because it means something different from every person who asks. The most hilarious verison is when someone from Star magazine or the Sun asks me, "What does Gaga think about this?," all high-minded. And I just have to laugh. One of the people who asked me that question, I was like, you wrote a story last year that says Lady Gaga has a penis! And I'm worried that Lady Gaga thinks I wrote too fawningly or too well about those difficult days in her past?
Do any of her fans think you've overstated your importance in Gaga's development?
My book is a year-in-the-life. I was at this book expo, and I hadn't met anybody who wanted to read my book yet. And all these librarians came up to me – "Can you sign for this kid?" They always had one kid in mind. "He always gets picked on, but I know your book is going to make him really happy . . ." Here's what I think: when I was 16, there was no book about the music I was obsessed with at the time. To show these people what it was like in that music scene – I mean, the main character in my book is New York City. And you see in that year how much the neighborhood changes. And sometimes when things go by so fast, maybe you're gone for a week, and when you come back, that store or restaurant you loved has become a bank. And it's the same with the people in your life. I watched Gaga go from a shy, quiet girl with dark hair, a rocker look, to taking over the music industry in one year.
Has anything she's done since she turbocharged her career surprised you?
Oh! Huh. [Pauses] There are things I knew about her that didn't seem that important when we were younger that became more important to her, like her Born This Way Foundation. She's choosing to play a more socially-minded role in society and set an example.
It's interesting that, given the amazing lengths she goes to to be outlandish and theatrical, what surprises you most is that she's conscientious in terms of her fans.
That was a pleasant surprise, yeah.
She's such an open book as a celebrity, and yet she's a new creation each time you see her. Your book is talking about her as a regular kid, but there's nothing about your own upbringing to that point. You start as a blank slate.
You're right.You know what was a strange inspiration for that? I love how in The Big Lebowski, he's such a blank slate – he's picking up words other people are using. "This aggression will not stand!" So I wanted to be the anchor for this story.
I was going to ask if there are books about the downtown life that were an inspiration, but I like the Big Lebowski answer better.
OK, the one book I looked to more than any other when I needed the courage to write difficult chapters is Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. He wasn't writing about the way things are – he was writing about the way things were. I felt like I was playing catch-up on my own life when I was writing it. And he wrote honestly about [F. Scott] Fitzgerald in the book. Some of them are Hemingway's metaphors about what happened to Fitzgerald, with his crackup. You can tell Hemingway is jealous of Fitzgerald's talent and his acumen, the way he'll change stories just a little to make them be a little more sellable. Hemingway couldn't do that. So he watched him kind of be the mastermind of this, and then he also watched him go nuts.
So is it too much of an oversimplification to say you're Hemingway the reporter and Gaga is Fitzgerald the mercurial talent?
[Laughs] I'll take it!
As a fellow Sullivan, I have to ask: did you grow up saddled as a Sully?
Sometimes when I'm on tour, one person will call me Sully, and then I'm Sully for the rest of the trip. I think I had to add the middle name just to not sound like I might own a bar that has 25-cent wing nights.
Besides telling your story and Gaga's, your book is a good one for bartenders to read.
Being a bartender is like being a beat reporter. You know what's going on, who's coming and going, who's broken up with whom. It's like being in the press box.