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From The Other Side

Queer nightlife of a bygone Boston

In 1971, Bobby Busnach stumbled upon The Other Side, a gay bar in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood. There, with his stupendous hair and six-inch bubble-toe platforms, he found a community of street kids, drag queens, scare queens, trans women, hustlers, johns, wannabes, dykes, and fag hags. The fifteen-year-old, a survivor of domestic abuse and surreal stays at a state mental hospital and drug rehab facility, had recently come out and was turning tricks on Commonwealth Avenue to support himself. For Busnach and other misfits, The Other Side was utterly intoxicating—and not just in the sense of being about to pass out from doing the bump after consuming too many cans of Schlitz on an empty stomach. Though run by the mafia and overshadowed by the threat of violence, it was a place where conventional ideas about gender and sexuality were being turned on their head, where alternative formations of community and modes of expression were hurtling into view.

Bobby Busnach and Geraldine Visco, The Other Side, 1973. | Courtesy of Art Market Provincetown.
Bobby Busnach, Geraldine and Denise on the Way to The Other Side, 1973. | Courtesy of Art Market Provincetown.

This was around the time that Busnach started taking photographs with a camera purportedly scooped up from an apartment he robbed. Like the photographer Nan Goldin, whose tinseled queens from The Other Side now sashay through Introduction to Art History courses, Busnach documented his friends at the bar and elsewhere, yet he mainly kept these pictures to himself, storing the negatives in a suitcase. Three decades later, he revisited them as a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where he finally made proper prints and learned the ABC’s of artspeak, positioning himself as a long-forgotten member of the exalted “Boston School” of photography, which included Goldin, David Armstrong, and Mark Morrisroe, among others.

Busnach’s best friend was Geraldine Visco, a fag hag for the history books. They’d met at a hippie “free” school in Harvard Square and shared apartments in Boston, San Francisco, and New York City. As muses and partners in play, Busnach and Visco fueled each other across fashion, photography, deejaying, and film. Though pictures of the friends together in this period are hard to come by, Allen Frame recently discovered a few he took of them at a diner in August 1974, shortly before all three left town. A budding photographer who had just graduated from Harvard, Frame didn’t know Busnach or Visco well at all; he and Busnach met one night on the dancefloor, hooked up, and went out for lunch with Visco the next day.

Allen Frame, Bobby (sunglasses) and Geraldine, diner, Boston, 1974. | Courtesy of the artist.

“Being at The Other Side,” Busnach told deejay and community historian Brian Halligan in a 2013 interview, “was very empowering because it was our world.” Like most nightlife havens, however, it only lasted for a couple of years. By 1974, the crowd had veered straight, and some queers started to migrate to the 1270 on Boylston Street and Cabaret across town on Lansdowne Street. By 1976, when the Boston Licensing Board finally shut down The Other Side because of a longstanding conflict with the Bay Village Association, Busnach and Visco were already holding court in the gay glam rock and disco scenes of New York City.

With The Other Side’s closure, its singular scene splintered. Whereas many of the queens and misfits gravitated toward Together, which had opened in the former Black club The Sugar Shack on Boylston Street, the gays patronized The Ramrod Room and Chaps. The arrival of punk in the late 1970s transformed everything yet again, as clubs like Spit became all the rage. For about two decades, the building that housed The Other Side sat empty until it was finally bulldozed in the mid-1990s to make way for brick condominiums.

In 2011, after moving back to Massachusetts and returning to his photographs from the 1970s, Busnach sought to revive the world of The Other Side online. More than a means of reconnecting former bar regulars, the Facebook page he created functions as a community archive—albeit assembled and moderated by an anarchic archivist who exclusively typed in all-caps or no-caps and scarcely used punctuation. The page is a non-chronological jumble of birthday parties, holiday festivities, art openings, and announcements of Alzheimer’s diagnoses and memorial services. Busnach also produced and uploaded many 1970s remixes to Mixcloud, as well as videos combining these tracks with his visual archive to YouTube, some of which have been taken down due to copyright infringement. Busnach’s archival labor centered around his own experience, and the page description reads as more of a personal memoir than an account of the establishment: “the other side,” it begins, “helped to formulate who i am today and what i do.”

While his ownership of The Other Side’s history in the digital realm rubbed some people the wrong way, Busnach was devoted to the project, amassing hundreds of images of varying quality, digitizing ephemera, sharing his own stories, tagging individuals, and organizing reunions for the remaining few. An extraordinary but uneven resource for historians and community members, the page is arguably his magnum opus.

Mark Winer, As the World Burns, 1973, screenshot of digitized Super 8 film. | Courtesy of the artist.

One work to be found in the troughs of this makeshift archive is As the World Burns, a Super 8 film directed by Mark Winer in 1973, a digitized version of which Busnach posted to Facebook in 2014. A couple of nights a week, Winer, a Boston University undergraduate film student living with his parents in the suburbs, would drive into the city to hang out at The Other Side, where he got to know Busnach. Enchanted by the teenage hustler’s flamboyant looks and zonked affect, Winer asked him to star in a film imaginatively based on his delightfully messy relationships.

Mark Winer, As the World Burns, 1973, screenshot of digitized Super 8 film. | Courtesy of the artist.

Drawing on the madcap energy and everyday lives of its cast, As the World Burns—a play, of course, on the schmaltzy soap As the World Turns—sets fire to conventions of gender, sex, identity, and friendship. The only occasion that Winer showed the film in public was a 1973 screening at Boston University, where it received thunderous applause from students and professors. “People were completely shocked,” Winer told me in 2022. “They’d never seen anything like it before.”

Largely improvised, the eighteen-minute film revolves around Busnach’s relationship with B., a trans woman he drops by to visit one day. “Oh, Bobby,” B. coos, emerging from her Beacon Hill apartment to go for a walk. “I thought that was you by the way you rang the bell,” she says, implying that he is too gay or stoned to ring the bell like a normal person. As they saunter along a Storrow Drive footbridge toward the Esplanade, she lovingly lays into him: “People usually stop by because they want to visit. But with you it’s a different case. . . . You want something. You want either money or you want me to put you up for a while . . . or you have no other alternatives, like . . . I’m the person you come to when you’re down in the dumps, you have nowhere else to go.”

Mark Winer, As the World Burns, 1973, screenshot of digitized Super 8 film. | Courtesy of the artist.
Mark Winer, As the World Burns, 1973, screenshot of digitized Super 8 film. | Courtesy of the artist.

Back at B.’s apartment later that night, the friends are joined by Visco and B.’s real-life sister, Lee. The four pour out glasses of bubbly with a pretense of sophistication while David Bowie’s “Time,” a vamping track that came out just months before, drowns out the party. “Time, in quaaludes and red wine,” sings the sibylline musician, “demanding Billy Dolls and other friends of mine: take your time.” (“Billy Dolls” refers to Billy Murcia, the New York Dolls drummer who died of a heroin overdose the previous year; notably, Bowie and the Dolls enjoyed patronizing The Other Side.) While the injunction to “take your time” obviously strikes a cautionary note, it is eclipsed by the compounding sentiment of carpe diem: “We should be on by now,” insists the refrain, urging listeners to pursue their dreams while they still can.

With the soundtrack’s abrupt transition to Kool & the Gang, friends become lovers as the dance party boils into an orgy—one, hilariously, in which clothes stay on, even Busnach’s adorable James Dean T-shirt. Though the film casts sex as satire, performance, and artifice, their debauchery seems to be an honest portrayal of their chaotic and exhilarating world. The film’s final shot is a tableau vivant of the four looking vacantly at the camera, along with Lee’s girlfriend, who has just come home and evidently missed out on all the fun. It is street family at its finest.

Mark Winer, As the World Burns, 1973, screenshot of digitized Super 8 film. | Courtesy of the artist.

“HEY JACKSON. LETS TALK,” Busnach wrote in response to my Facebook and email messages, the capitalized letters mimicking his heavy Boston accent. It was May 2019, and I had stumbled upon The Other Side page and wanted to speak with him and see more of his work. We made vague plans for me to visit him on Cape Cod over the summer. But then he died of heart failure at age sixty-three a few weeks later.

One of his last posts on the page announced that Pickles, a friend from back in the day, had entered hospice. “SO MANY OF US SURVIVORS ARE LIKE COCKROACHES,” Busnach assured his followers. “YOU CANT KILL US OFF.” While he would soon update this post with the sad news of Pickles’s death, it appears that no one has been able to post about Busnach’s death or anything else on the page. His online archive is now a time capsule.

After hearing about Busnach’s death, I tried to contact Visco on Facebook, to no avail. In July 2020, a post on her Facebook wall noted she had dementia and had been residing in long-term care. And in May 2023, she died at the age of sixty-seven.

Mark Winer, As the World Burns, 1973, screenshot of digitized Super 8 film. | Courtesy of the artist.

I also haven’t been able to get in touch with B., Lee, or the girlfriend. I’ve heard through the grapevine that B. got married, moved to the suburbs, and had a successful career—not insignificant for a trans woman of color who came of age on Boston’s gritty streets in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Without knowing the fullness of her life trajectory, one can only marvel at her generosity with the camera; to me at least, it suggests the cocreation of her own image. As one of Goldin’s principal subjects in the early 1970s, B. now ranks among the most recognizable muses in the history of photography—something, I imagine, beyond the wildest dreams of both photographer and model. Goldin often identifies B. in her titles as “Roommate,” seemingly in an inconsistent effort to offer a greater degree of privacy to her model due to the artist’s own meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s, about a decade after B. modeled for her lounging in their apartment on Grove Street or competing in The Other Side’s beauty parade.

Allen Frame, Nan Photographing at The Other Side, Boston, 1973. | Courtesy of the artist.

In the 2019 reissue of her photo book The Other Side, first published in 1992, Goldin recalls running into B. on the Lower East Side one summer evening in 2017. They hadn’t seen each other or been in touch in decades. As Goldin recounts, B. “told me she lived with the pictures of our youth on her wall, that they had kept those times present.” Apparently, Goldin hadn’t heard about the heart-wrenching murders of Colette and Denine, or the AIDS-related death of Naomi—all of whom she’d abundantly photographed back in the day. B. was one of only a handful of the queens from The Other Side to have outlived the brutality of the 1980s and 1990s, persisting, against the odds.

Avram Finkelstein, Untitled Portrait (B.), 1972. Needlepoint canvas, wool, and lurex. Installation view, As the World Burns: Queer Photography and Nightlife in Boston, Tufts University Art Galleries, Boston, January 24–April 21, 2024. | Photo by Mel Taing. 

In 1972, Goldin gave Avram Finkelstein a Xeroxed photograph of B., a mutual friend, hand around her head in a contorted position. “Everything about B. was specific and individual,” he told me in an interview last year. “She was unlike anyone I had ever met.” Having recently learned to needlepoint at the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union—his first job out of the Museum School—Finkelstein hoped to make a work based on B.’s entire likeness as depicted in Goldin’s Xeroxed photograph. Because this proved too ambitious, he ended up focusing on her fingertip, capturing her shimmering singularity in an abstract needlepoint.

Avram Finkelstein, Untitled, 1972, 2019. Commissioned by The Shed. Photo by Tahir Carl Karmali. | Courtesy of the artist.

Reflecting on this era of queer art and community nearly fifty years later, Finkelstein created a monumental jacquard weaving that references his 1972 needlepoint while incorporating other multifaceted source material, such as a digital iPhone manipulation of B.’s hand from another Goldin photo superimposed on photos of the hands of Finkelstein and their other close friend, David Armstrong. Our muses transmogrify into dots. In manufacturing textiles through sequenced punch cards, the early nineteenth-century jacquard machine led to more advanced computing hardware and eventually digital media, like those the artist utilized to generate the image adorning this tapestry. This layering of hands—paradoxically, one of the most gendered and the least gendered parts of the body—shuttles between the ages of mechanical and digital reproduction. While Finkelstein’s work is about social, technological, and linguistic shifts related to gender and representation across the centuries, it is also a tribute to queer friendship, even at its most indecipherable.

This winding assortment of portraits that span photography, film, and textile is an elaboration on As the World Burns: Queer Photography and Nightlife in Boston, an exhibition I’ve curated in partnership with Laurel V. McLaughlin at Tufts University Art Galleries and which originated as an essay published by The Baffler in 2021. Illuminating the synergies between photography and nightlife in the age of gay liberation, this exhibition rewrites art histories of the “Boston School” to account for a more expansive archive of images, practices, and relationships. In nightlife’s dizzying glow, queer friendship collapses the distance between artist and muse and reveals itself most profoundly in a blurry face, a drunken grasp, an awkward stain, a Ben-Day dot.