Prairie Pop: Bibbe Hansen’s rebellious history and dynamic legacy

Bibbe Hansen (right) & Edie Sedgwick on the set of Andy Warhol's 1965 film, 'Prison'.  --photo by Billy Name, courtesy of the Billy Name Estate and Dagon James
Bibbe Hansen (right) & Edie Sedgwick on the set of Andy Warhol’s 1965 film, ‘Prison’.
–photo by Billy Name, courtesy of the Billy Name Estate and Dagon James

A single family’s artistic DNA can sometimes leave traces on the genetic makeup of the broader culture. Bibbe Hansen’s familial history, for example, also doubles as a survey of modern American bohemia and popular culture. It spans time and space, encompassing the 1950s Beatnik era and the present, New York and Los Angeles, Happenings and punk rock, Pop Art and pop music.

Back when Bibbe’s dad, Al Hansen, was serving as a G.I. in post-WWII Germany, he impulsively pushed a piano off the edge of a bombed-out building. Al always considered that his first performance piece, which he would reprise as the “Yoko Ono Piano Drop” during his involvement in the early-1960s Fluxus art movement. This prankish gesture would later be reenacted by Bibbe’s two sons, Beck and Channing Hansen — a successful musician and visual artist, respectively. (Right after the brothers threw a piano off a castle parapet as part of a museum show in Germany, Beck observed, “Wow. It really sounded German.”)

Their grandfather was an early pioneer of the Happenings movement, which was sparked in 1958 when Al Hansen, Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins and a handful of others took an influential class taught by John Cage at the New School for Social Research. Bibbe participated in her father’s performances and tagged along with him to see underground film screenings that were attended by Andy Warhol, who she would later collaborate with on a couple of films.

“Al Hansen was one of these crazy figures that marries all of these scenes together,” Bibbe said. “He’s the connect-the-dots guy between the post-World War II Beatnik to neo-Dada to Pop Art and Fluxus and Happenings and performance art and Intermedia.” Al was a roommate of Beat poet Gregory Corso, and when Bibbe was a young teen she lived in a Lower East Side apartment with Jack Kerouac’s daughter, Janet.

Bibbe and Janet formed a short-lived girl group, the Whippets, when the girls were swept away by a youthquake after Beatlemania erupted in 1964. During the Fab Four’s first visit to New York, they tried to meet the Beatles when the band was staying in the Plaza Hotel. That fantasy never materialized, but on the way to the hotel they scammed bus fare from what turned out to be a successful songwriter (who wrote “Denise,” a 1963 hit for Randy & the Rainbows, later covered by Blondie). He wanted the girls to record his Beatles-inspired track, “I Want To Talk To You,” which he had just written the night before.

“We’re like, ‘Sure, dirty old man,’” Bibbe recalled. “Right? We’ve been here before.” But he was for real, and they quickly signed to a subsidiary of Columbia Records, Colpix. The songwriter who penned Bobby Darrin’s hit “Splish Splash” wrote the b-side of the Whippets’ single, but, unfortunately, “Go Go Go With Ringo” was a dud. “Not so great,” Bibbe quipped. “But we did chart in Canada, so that’s something.”

“I had this kind of chaotic upbringing. My mother was, by turns, an amphetamine addict and a heroin addict, and had some very troubling alliances with men.” Bibbe continued, “I just wound up getting in an escalating series of troubles that erupted in me going to jail.”

After several months, Bibbe was released into Al Hansen’s custody, and on her first day of freedom they went to art galleries and ate at a restaurant with her dad’s friends, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

“They’re all talking artist-guy stuff, which is pretty uninteresting to me, but I’m very happy with my burger.”

“And suddenly, eyes are peering at me from across the table and it’s Andy Warhol. And he leans to me and he says, ‘And you? What do you do?’And my father, very proudly, answers before I can say a word, ‘I just sprung her from jail!’ Andy says, ‘Ah. Jail? Why? Please tell us all about that!’ So in my element, I immediately jump up and do three or four of my best war stories. And he just clapped his hands in delight and said, ‘We have to make a movie out of that!’” After co-starring in Prison with Edie Sedgwick, Bibbe became immersed in Warhol’s world (among other things, the fourteen-year-old was recruited to be a go-go dancer onstage with the Velvet Underground for one of the group’s early performances).

By the late-1960s, Bibbe moved to Los Angeles where she met her first husband, David Campbell, a musician and arranger who began his career working with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King (Campbell has since worked with everyone from Adele to Beyoncé, and his son Beck). With a growing family, Bibbe settled into a relatively sedate SoCal life — that is, until her dad moved to L.A. around 1976 and hipped her to punk rock.

Bibbe Hansen and her dad, Al Hansen in 1968. -- photo courtesy of the Al Hansen Archive
Bibbe Hansen and her dad, Al Hansen in 1968. — photo courtesy of the Al Hansen Archive

“That’s classic Al,” Bibbe said. “He would get people into shit. He was always where something very, very interesting was happening.” Al Hansen became involved in the scene that coalesced around the Masque basement club, and he informally managed the Screamers, the Controllers and other early L.A. punk bands. The Hansen home soon became known as “Bibbe’s bunk house,” where punk kids with nowhere to go were welcome to crash.

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Bobby Pyn — who became Darby Crash, frontman of the formative L.A. punk band the Germs — would sometimes stay over and read her collection of dictionaries and encyclopedias.

“Linda Ronstadt and Peter Asher would be upstairs in David’s studio,” she said. “The kids would be playing in the backyard, and Al and I and a bunch of fairly scary-looking people would be in the living room, or at the dining room table eating peanut butter sandwiches.”

In the mid-1970s, Al taught Beck how to rhyme (his very first couplet was “Pull down your pants and do the hotdog dance,” which Beck later recycled and revised in “Lord Only Knows,” from Odelay).

After splitting with David Campbell, Bibbe Hansen married Sean Carrillo in 1984. Sean was a member of the Chicano performance and conceptual art group ASCO, and together they opened the groundbreaking L.A. gallery and performance venue the Troy Café in the 1990s. During this time Bibbe played in the band Black Fag with the intersex-born “terrorist drag” performer Vaginal Davis, though this barely scratches the surface of her wide-ranging creative pursuits.

Nowadays Bibbe Hansen is a member of Second Front, a performance art group that exists in the online world of Second Life. There, her avatar Bibbe Oh can be seen playing virtual sound collage concerts culled from Fluxus audio sources (though she also does live performances, most recently with Lydia Lunch in New York City). Collectively, the life experiences of Bibbe’s extended family are a kaleidoscopic tapestry that embodies some of the most vital elements of post-WWII American culture. The Hansen clan is a rich national treasure — a living, ever-evolving work of art that continues to surprise.

Kembrew McLeod urges readers to check out the University of Iowa library’s substantial collection of Fluxus works and ephemera. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 213.