Future Past

I knew Cal from when I worked in a restaurant in the East VIllage in the early-mid-90s. We used to work the graveyard shifts at the Sidewalk Restaurant and Bar on 6th & A. We rarely saw each other since we worked opposite nights, but I got to know him when he first trained. And then we would often pass through each others shifts or meet when I moved up to nights and we would chat as he would come in to take over.

I only learned about the other aspect to his life — computer art — when we once briefly intersected in our post restaurant lives. Cal showed up one day at the Saint Marks Church where I was working as a technical director a few years after Sidewalk. He was part of a crew of computer artists doing a massive installation. I was a struggling short filmmaker still having to work on the technical side of the arts to make rent. We barely spoke at that event. But there was a moment of recognition as we saw each other there. I remember as they were running through a tech rehearsal he and I made eye contact and he gave a small Cheshire grin.

Tonight I stumbled on a trailer for a documentary about Josh Harris called “We Live In Public.” In it, I noticed an interview with Cal who was going by “JudgeCal.” He flashed by very quickly and I wasn’t even sure what he said because I was only half paying attention.

After I finished the video, it made me curious to goggle him and maybe see if I couldn’t find him on facebook and say hi. But then I came across this obituary.

Cal had a much larger life than I had any idea about. I don’t want to deify him, but I sensed there was something about him when we were working together. I couldn’t place it at the time. Did people know they had met Neal Cassady back in 1955? I don’t think I could understand Cal back then, I don’t know if I do now. But I wish I had tried a little harder.

Rest in peace, Mark “Cal” Chamberlain.

From The New York Times:

August 16, 2008

Mourning a Club Fixture, and an Internet Pioneer

When the body of Cal Chamberlain, or Judge Cal as many people knew him, was found in his Chelsea apartment more than two weeks ago, his friends wondered not only what had happened to him, but whether they could find any of his family members. He had apparently been dead several days, the friends said.

His real name was Mark Chamberlain, and he came to New York in the early 1980s after running away from his Seattle home when he was in high school. Over the next 20 years he became a fixture in Manhattan’s nightclub world, worked for a time as a model, and was an Internet pioneer, broadcasting Web videos long before “YouTube” and “blogger” entered the lexicon.

He worked briefly as a blog reporter for CNN, and recently immersed himself in the world of what is called outsider art, helping to build a towering sculpture made of parts of two 18-wheelers.

With his spiky blond hair, silver rings and combat boots, Mr. Chamberlain, who turned 40 in April, was a hard figure to forget. But it was the distinctive tattoos that covered his arms that enabled his friends to identify his body at the morgue.

Amid the mourning, a sense of mystery lingers around Mr. Chamberlain. The cause of death is under investigation, the medical examiner’s office said. The police said there were no signs of foul play, and no suicide note, and his friends said they knew of no serious ailments afflicting him.

His body remains at the morgue, and it was not until Thursday that his friends were able to reach a sister of Mr. Chamberlain’s in Seattle.

Despite his distinctive style, he kept parts of his life very private.

“He’s somebody who touched hundreds and hundreds of people’s lives,” said John Christopher Morton, who worked with Mr. Chamberlain in the 1990s. “But few people knew him intimately.”

Parts of Mr. Chamberlain’s public life sound like scenes from a Jay McInerney novel.

He modeled for the fashion designer Stephen Sprouse and befriended the singer Deborah Harry. He performed with his own band, Icon Man, and appeared in a video made by David Byrne of the Talking Heads.

Friends said he once made liberal use of drugs and alcohol, but emerged sober from an era of excess.

Lisamarie Grosso, who met Mr. Chamberlain when both were teenagers and hung out with him in nightclubs, said: “He was in a way a very archetypal personality. He was a rebel and a seeker.”

Living in the West 20s, sometimes in his own apartments and sometimes with a longtime girlfriend at the Chelsea Hotel, Mr. Chamberlain was present at the intersection of Manhattan’s art, fashion, music and technology scenes.

Soon after arriving in New York, Mr. Chamberlain landed a job at Danceteria, a nightspot run by Rudolf Pieper, where Madonna, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys rubbed shoulders with club kids still in their teens. Mr. Chamberlain thrived in the bustling environment and was soon well known within the tightknit nightclub world.

“From the Palladium to the Cat Club, he could get you in anywhere,” said J. P. Lund, a lawyer in Austin, Tex., who knew Mr. Chamberlain when they skateboarded in the streets surrounding Washington Square Park. “He seemed to know everybody at every club.”

In 1994, Mr. Chamberlain was among the first to be hired at Pseudo.com, a company that became a new-media trailblazer by broadcasting video on the Web. Mr. Chamberlain hosted a program called “Judge Cal’s High Weirdness.” The title was inspired by a character in the sci-fi comic book series Judge Dredd.

The show’s content, which included explications of conspiracy theories and discussions of the mysterious and macabre, provided for Mr. Chamberlain’s dark wit. During one episode, broadcast live, he had his lip pierced.

Mr. Morton, who also worked at Pseudo.com, said Mr. Chamberlain’s talent rested in his ability to move beyond a niche audience during a time when the Web was still in its infancy.

“The Web created new social realms and situations and he understood that,” Mr. Morton said.

In 2000, Pseudo.com assigned Mr. Chamberlain to report from the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. He arrived wearing a headset and vest equipped with earphones, a Web cam and keypad, which Josh Harris, the founder of Pseudo.com, said was later donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

Resembling a character out of the film “Blade Runner,” he roamed the convention hall floor, conducting interviews and posing for photographs with party leaders like Newt Gingrich.

“He would engage in really fascinating debates,” said David Bohrman, who was running Pseudo.com in 2000 and is now a vice president at CNN and the network’s Washington bureau chief. “The interviews were spectacular.”

Mr. Chamberlain also covered the Democratic convention that year. He later served for a time as a blog reporter on CNN, talking about national political issues being discussed on various Web sites.

In recent years, Mr. Chamberlain was active with the Madagascar Institute, a Brooklyn-based art combine. That led him to participate in Burning Man festivals, where he helped create metal sculptures including one called “Big Rig” that featured parts of two 18-wheelers welded together.

One close friend, Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist, wrote on a blog on The Huffington Post that when Mr. Chamberlain’s “pessimism would plummet to depression, I’d just watch the epic ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy with him again.”

She said that regardless of what ends up being listed on his death certificate, she believed that it was Mr. Chamberlain’s “choice, one way or another,” adding: “He hated summers. I can’t help being angry, maybe not directly at him, but at the world for not making it easier for someone who was an independent thinker, someone who was sensitive and talented and ethical in a way that made day-to-day living hard.”

No burial service is yet scheduled, but several memorials honoring Mr. Chamberlain are planned during Burning Man events at the end of the month in Nevada. Another memorial will be held during the Electric Picnic music festival in Ireland.

And on Saturday night, friends from his Danceteria days and the Pseudo.com days will gather in the East Village at the Theater for the New City to remember Mr. Chamberlain.

“I’m going to miss his presence,” Ms. Grosso said. “I’ll miss knowing that he’s somewhere in the world.”
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3 thoughts on “

  1. I worked with Cal at Pseudo from 1997-2000. He was a really good guy with a really macabre sense of humor. That smile you describe is correct: He had a lot going on beyond whatever outward appearance he was giving at the time. I bumped into him a few times over the last few years and he always had a kind word and a big smile. He lived a life that few could dream of: He was the real deal.Thanks for posting and paying tribute.

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