RICKY'S ROCKS - RICKY POWELL'S RETURN TO THE LIVING, 2011
About a week before our interview, the phone calls began. A sporadic smattering of unprovoked check-ins to tell me I was going to "get the interview of a life time". These turned into 2AM, 4AM and 6AM buzzings to update me on current whereabouts and bursting overly grandiose title ideas for a piece I had yet to write. When, once, cooking dinner for my family, my hands covered in raw chicken, I neglected to answer, I got an embittered voicemail, enlightening me to the fact that it really is unwise to ignore Ricky Powell's calls.
Apparently however, 'the Rickster' is a bearer of a double standard. In the 90 minutes we spent talking on a stoop in the west village he ignored no less than eight calls, once flipping open his leather clad Motorola to call someone a 'fuckin' marshmallow' and slamming it shut again. If we take him at his word, it's not surprising that Ricky's phone is blowing up right now. According to him, his life is in the best place it has been in over a decade. Enlivened by the promise of cash ('the biggest paycheck I've ever got"), and finally freed from the embarrassing vices that devoured his social life, cost him some friends, and almost destroyed his reputation, everyones favorite wise-ass almost comes off spiritually enlightened. But no lesson has been lost on Richard Powell, and if your loyalty wavered for a second through the storm, he remembers.
It is an affliction common amongst native New York kids - a little too much, a little too early. Vices usually reserved for the onset of boredom and/or inter-life crises, take hold right around when your out-of-state counterparts are first being let off curfew. A grander sense of disillusionment often follows - the much revered "fuck this fucking fuck that" rhetoric that New Yorkers are known for. For many people, New York is a sea made of gold, but when you're born into such a flood of genius and expectation, all that precious metal can amount to lead in your sinking pockets.
Though the accidental artlessness of Ricky's photos would leave it to be argued that his work is that of someone who was just in the right place, at the right time, only the naive would deny that that formula is fruitless, without the right guy. The fact that the world of 'cool' is in love with him, the reason enviable opportunities drop into his lap, and the key that has opened (and closed) every door in Ricky's life, is his inexhaustible character. Ricky is as much a personality piece, as he is an artist. His greatest work, is himself.
Like a grandfather nostalgically recounting history, Ricky's hurtling verbal train derails into rambling accounts of those who have done him wrong. "New jack hags who wouldn't leave" who he had to have bounced from events, people who turned on him after one too many indiscretions, and how spite was eventually the motivation to haul his ass out of his squalid den of sins. With a little bone picking through the stories and names of the accused, a truth emerges about the kind of heart that ticks within Rick. It is a tender one, a sensitive soul easily scarred by the departure of an ex-girlfriend, or the hurled insults and backs turned by former friends. A life spent in Manhattan has provided Ricky with a thick veneer of toughness and street slang to mask his wounds, but it doesn't manage to conceal the affectionate instincts behind his jaded front, and it becomes easy to see that what he calls spite is actually hurt.
The scale of Ricky's success is measured a different currency than most celebrities. As opposed to a more common mink-lined fantasy, Ricky cashes his big checks at the Bank of Human Impact. (I.e. the junior writer that I took with me to the interview told me that, upon his arrival in New York, the only person he knew he "had to meet in this town, was Ricky Powell".) Ricky is that approachable dude, lazily slouching down 6th avenue clutching his infamous grade school edition composition notebooks, wearing two pairs of glasses, a baseball hat (it's 'fuck you' angle cocked just so), and his own custom Rickford sneakers with a cigarette burn in his dirty t-shirt. Taking a walk with Ricky pulls so many weirdos out of alleys and across streets to shake his hand, it feels like an inaugural parade with the mayor of native artists, underground celebrities, and freaky jerk offs. This adventure, which many have attempted to capture on film, is a daily reminder to Ricky of why he should never off himself, which, in the midst of the 'interview of a lifetime' he is giving us, he admits he has considered it recently. "The last couple years I havent gotten shit. I was chasing down jerk offs to buy a print for a hundred dollars. Begging them. It hurt, it was really humiliating. I did what I had to do to survive. Little hustles. And all of a sudden, once 2008 came in, I'm getting shit coming to me. And trust me, I almost got evicted in 2007, I almost took myself out. Wylding out. I just lost faith."Anyone who knows the man will admit that he's quite the curmudgeon, but, arguably few would imagine he would consider killing himself. Even fewer of Ricky's cohorts or critics knew that he spent the last eight years smoking crack with hookers in his one room apartment. " I started smoking crack. Eight years. You know, I got escorts and all that, and just stayed at home." From where we were sitting on that stoop, he pointed across the street. "Thats my apartment right there, on the ground floor. That became a dungeon. I gave up. With the Bush regime?! But it really kicked in in 2004, when the Republican convention came to the Garden. I said, yo, this aint my kinda world."
2007 was a bad year for Rick. He spent the better part of it inside his cave, tweaking rock and invariably sweet talking prostitutes, but at the same time that he hit his own rock bottom, his life turned around."I wanted to take myself out, I was really taking it overboard with the wylding out, I owed people money, mad debt, I couldn't pay my rent, all this stress, and then this ad agency out of Sweden calls and is like 'yo, we really like your style, do you want to shoot an ad campaign for Dickies Europe?'." The ad campaign for Dickie's Europe earned him 30 thousand dollars, easily the most money he had ever seen for one gig. "The most I've ever made was ten thousand in one shot. The Europeans bailed me out, cuz I owed some pot dealers some serious money, like ten thousand. I spent their money on wylding out with escorts. I was doing what Lawrence Taylor did for a year. That's what I was doing, smoking crack with prostitutes in my house. I wasn't gonna tell you, I was just gonna say candy, but I dont give a shit cuz it's behind me."
But almost as an afterthought, Ricky threw in "I dont go to Puerto Rican neighborhoods and cop on the street you know, I got like sophisticated Korean women who deliver to me. And the dont call it crack, they call it candy." He paused to admire a pair of passing yuppie girls, and began his story again, elaborating on the arrival of the new era of the Rickster, detailing how a gallery in Chelsea gave him 20 thousand dollars for 250 prints of his famous Basquiat and Warhol photo, which meant that, in the first quarter of the year alone, he had made 50 thousand dollars. More than he had seen in a year in his life. Then the hotel gig dropped. "This big hotel chain is sending out 4x6 prints of my photos to announce the new hotel. 75 thousand. When my boy called me and said 'yo we got it', I SCREAMED, like a bitch. Just to get outta debt, that's big."
As tangible proof of the mending of his ways, Ricky was toting a bottle of Pellegrino spring water, which he guzzled intermittently, and five crystal rocks that he laid out on the step beside him. No, not that kind of rock, the new age-y kind. "I'm a true scorpio" he says, "I manifest energy from spite and redemption. After all that, I cut off some people who turned out to be lame roaches, and the people who have replaced them in my realm are all fucking inspirational, and productive. We have a mutual respect."
© Copyright, iO Tillett Wright 2012