Death and the Limelight: The tragedy of “Gurl Nineteen” Ruth Polsky

Ruth Polsky was responsible for giving many post punk bands their first taste of America, including The Smiths, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Cocteau Twins.

Ruth Polsky on a train in London with Certain Generals. (Photo by Parker Dulaney)

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, December 6, 1986 – “O’ Death, have mercy. Just spare me over for another year.” That plaintive lament has howled through our deepest fears since time began. For the great majority of us, when we become aware of our individual, impending inevitable we search for clues as to the value of journey we have taken.

Depending on the person, these revelatory insights can be motivational, lamentable, joyous, suicidal – usually, all at once.

To be struck dead before you have had that epiphany however, that is the true tragedy of a life extinguished early, a sojourn made incomplete.

Gurl Nineteen, like so many skeins in your humble narrators (YHN) web, originates in the crucible of Wormtown (Read: Gurl Two) and spins through the following years until her untimely death in 1986.

She never got to see the fruits of her labor. She never got to see how right she was about everything so many of us blabbed all night about.

Ruth Polsky booked Danceteria in NYC in the heyday of the 80’s.

Ruth Polsky was not only the conduit through which we at The Underground were able to get such amazing artists to perform at our crappy club, she was the behind-the-scenes advocate behind YHN clinching his first touring gigs as a sound engineer for bands like the Raincoats, Fad Gadget and Raybeats.

Like so many Gurls, she spoke to a potential of things not yet discovered, and was always searching for unusual holes into which the collection of odd pegs that she surrounded herself could fill.

Read: 52 Gurls a Punk Rock Journey

Seemingly driven to be a facilitator for the future and a fun-loving force for good in the lives of those that got pulled into the orbit of her groovy gravity she seemed timeless. Those that have known her the longest would be the first to say “well, she was always like that.”

Ruth left Wormtown after matriculating from Clark University where, in the campus newspaper, she wrote passionately about the new explosion in music happening in London and Manhattan.

She landed, briefly, to write a music column for The Aquarian in her home state of New Jersey before jetting off to England.

It was there that she forged the carbon-strength connections that ferried so many musical visions across the pond.

As the talent buyer for two of the most influential Manhattan clubs promoting new musical vistas, first Hurrah’s, and later Danceteria, Ruth had enough backing to not only pay for the artists to come over to perform on her stages but also to funnel them down to us in Boston.

The list of artists she helped introduce to America is a veritable who’s who of post punk and beyond.

The Smiths, New Order, Einstürzende Neubauten, The Only Ones, The Sisters of Mercy, The Birthday Party, Cocteau Twins, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Young Marble Giants, Cabaret Voltaire, The Go-Betweens, The Slits, The Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, Echo & the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, The Teardrop Explodes, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Gene Loves Jezebel and the Jesus & Mary Chain, the list goes on and on.

Ruth with New Order in London.

Unlike many of her peers at the time she was just as avid in her promotion of local artists as she was of British ones. She used her muscle to arrange the first European shows for NYC stalwarts like The Db’s, The Fleshtones, Raybeats, Bush Tetras, The Bongos, and Polyrock.

Gurl 19 talks to Gurl 15 sometime in New York City…

She also pioneered the use of a loophole in an Eastern Airlines promotion for an unlimited amount of flying for 30 days for ridiculously little money to book Manhattan Cool across the U.S.

Bands on these tours would have a show in Boston and the next day they would fly to Atlanta and then to a show in Minneapolis. From Minneapolis to Atlanta and then to a show in Phoenix etc.

Ruth Polski with a friend.

It was, by all accounts, an excellent way to familiarize oneself with the best places to wash your socks in Atlanta’s airport and to see small bits and pieces of America from 20,000 feet.

Tiring of the constraints imposed by a scene once so loose, now becoming more rigid and self-aware, Ruth began to branch-out into management and artist relations.

Ruth Polsky with another friend.

With unerring instinct, she began advising a new band on the scene – Certain General. In the interest of total “transparency”, YHN must note that he did sound for and was blindly enamored of the band.

She had guided them from their early days as hardscrabble purveyors of a twisted and brutally psychedelic take on the American songbook to European success and the cusp of culture jamming on a grand scale.

Ruth’s passing was made shocking not only by occasion but also by circumstance. You have to understand, she NEVER waited in line at a club.

On Sept. 7, 1986, Ruth had booked the band to play a record-release show and AIDS benefit at the Limelight in Chelsea. The band’s singer Parker Dulaney had arranged to meet Ruth outside the venue.

In a twist of fate he had forgotten his guitar and left to get it, leaving Ruth outside, waiting. When he got back, he said he saw carnage.

A livery car had run a red light, hit a yellow cab in the intersection at West 20th Street and Sixth Avenue. The cab had spun out of control, and crushed Ruth against the wall of the club, killing her instantly.

Gurl Nineteen knew how much she meant to YHN. That being said, it is sad she didn’t get to live long enough to think about what it could mean in context.

Ruth Polsky

As a coda: On December 5, 1986, New Order played a benefit for Ruth at the Roxy in New York, encoring with Joy Division tunes Atmosphere and Love Will Tear Us Apart, the first time the band had played these songs live since Ian’s passing.

Goodbye Gurl Nineteen. I assure you there were no microphones feeding back during the writing of this screed.

Cash Bundren is one of many characters from “As I Lay Dying” and is known mostly for being unable to express his own discomfort, and for a wild ride on a coffin.

Punk rock music can be heard regularly on John Carlucci’s SpeedieJohn program on
Channel 21 of Little Stevens Underground Garage on Sirius XM Satellite radio.

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