The customised ruins
of a past future
By Jaime Gonzalo
Old school Rock’n’roll, the one formulated by glam wit its odd retro-futurism at the beginning of the seventies, bi-sexualized a subculture up to then monopolised by heterosexuality, rooted in prominent crotch male-chauvinism and submissive groupies. Like Soberano cognac, other things such as make up, lamé and sequins, boas and feathers, high-heels and platform shoes or nail polish could now be a manly thing. Bad time for being a woman: out of the few included in that effeminate galaxy -Bobbie McGee, Zenda Jacks- only Suzi Quatro, the least feminine of the lot, has survived in the forgetful collective memory.
Glam was, as the James Brown song said, “a man’s world / but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.” The solution to reach the equality that rock virility so much repelled was no other than creating a faux androgyny, which was, save in some exceptions -Jobriath-, as fake as a toupee. Glam ambiguity turned girls into rude rockers with a lesbian flair, like the Runaways and Quatro, and boys into bearded, tarted-up transvestites.
Between 1972 and 1973, all of them polluted sport centres and bumper cars with booming generational anthems that would change top 10 lists and fashion completely, giving way to all sorts of aesthetic aberrations, blowing up the sexual taboos of the time. If the Beatles’ hairiness first and the seraphic androgyny of the hippies after that had bewildered adults in the sixties (a perplexity shown in songs such as Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl by the Barbarians), coarse glam transvestism blew out the sanctimonious fuses of the seventies.
Marc Bolan, with T. Rex, was the one to kick the ball first, but the one crowned as the unanswerable icon of the lot was another ex-folk singer without luck looking for hits mutated into alien queen, David Bowie, with the first of his heteronyms, Ziggy Stardust. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars took out of the closet the new character making Bowie a massive artist and elevating glam rock from its working class background to a distinguished poetic category, as Roxy Music did by absorbing forties Hollywood glamour.
The vulgar version of glam was glitter, a lower form exploited by latecomers such as Gary Glitter, Slade, The Sweet and other proletarian idols that could well be secret paedophiles or skinheads ready to change their careers. While that market expanded, momentarily attracting figures in crisis such as Mott the Hoople or Lou Reed, both Bowie protégés, it was Ziggy Stardust with its arty sci-fi recipe who transcended and universalized the goods also known as gay rock.
Howling black sodomites
Like its offspring, punk, glam, a cage aux folles that would cannibalise its creatures, was presented as the product of an immaculate conception. Maximum, some peripheral forerunners were mentioned, such as Oscar Wilde and Warholian Factory drag queens like Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, protagonists of Walk on the Wild Side, putative mothers of the New York Dolls and indubitable inspiration for spongy Bowie, who would copy Curtis’ ginger hair and Ultraist make up.
In order to build Ziggy, the star incurred in another act of theft, stealing his name from Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a loony Texas psychobilly prophet with whom he shared the same American record label, and author of a single that in 1969 already used sci-fi imaginary, I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship, in time covered by Bowie.
Beyond those trite references, some light years into the past we find the still luxurious background of a tradition, a proto-glam DNA chain that should be excavated in the beginnings of rock’n’roll. From 1855 onwards, the US abolished the law that forbid African Americans to participate in minstrel show, the first form of variety theatres that was genuinely American, back then the engine of the country’s musical industry.
A genre that in the decade of the forties from last century still segregated women, substituting them for better or worse characterised men, drag queens avant la lettre that in the sphere of black minstrel were played by teenage boys, homosexually initiated by the multitude of experts in the matter that ruled the business, a traditional gay lobby. Little Richard was one of them before he became famous.
His number consisted in appearing dressed up as a lady and with make up, with a long red dress, as Princess Lavonia, androgynous juggler the pirouettes of whom marvelled Esquerita, one of the best-known gays of negro rock and roll. Like Richard, he used his image as a weapon: tons of make up, voluptuous attire and a double wig that elevated his sparkling hairpiece to stratospheric altitudes.
“In those shows,” Richard remembered in his biography, “there were lots of guys dressed as women. They all wore make up and eye shadow.’’ Billy Wright was another one of those artists, the best transvestite in Atlanta and second great influence for Richard: He was impressed by the shocking colours of his clothes, his curly hair, and his extreme face paint.
Full of monstrosities such as Patsy, a transvestite Richard found indignant because “he didn’t even shave his moustache and looked like a woman who had just been beaten with a plank,” R&B gay jested with a bunch of howling and pornographic black transvestites that foretold the moral and sexual ambiguity that would characterise the seventies.
Even though he officially denied his homosexuality and married for convenience, Liberace would be another of Ziggy’s forefather, as the affected dean of mainstream glam. This exuberant, super popular in the media piano player and singer whose sumptuous style of life and delirious wardrobe –with ostrich feathers and ermine furs– would influence Elton John as well. Immensely popular between the fifties and seventies, a regular of Las Vegas stages with spectacular shows, neutralised any insinuations on his sexual orientation expressed by the tabloids, successfully suing several of them. His death by AIDS in 1987 addressed this concern.
Flaming Creatures, by Jack Smith
Cult film director and underground performer, Jack Smith would only finish one film, legendary Flaming Creatures, in 1963, a homoerotic homage to María Montez full of explicit penises and bisexual attitudes that ended up being banned. A predecessor of Warhol, with whom he later collaborated several times, as well as with other members of the Factory, many of his ideas would be appropriated by the divine albino, especially the superstar concept that Smith used to create Mario Montez, future Warholian darling. In 1953 his avant-garde shootings already breathed transvestism, drag queens, homo fantasies and over the top make up that were pure glam rock. Oh, the great music videos he could have directed for Ziggy!
In 1969, the riots in Stonewall, a gay bar in New York the drag queen clients of which fought the police during a raid, caused great popular revolt and gave way to the birth of gay power. One of the belligerent transvestites was Wayne County, soon after invited by Jackie Curtis to join a theatre play. After writing and starring in another piece based on male castration, Warhol required of his services for Pork. In 1972, County formed a pre-punk band and Bowie signed him for his representation company MainMan. He would remain frozen there for a year, while his mentor bled him dry to the bone. Finally, in 1974 he agreed to produce his drag-punk musical Wayne at the Trucks that would inspire the mise-en-scène of the Diamond Dogs tour, and serve Ziggy on a tray Queenage Baby, seed of Rebel Rebel.
George Harris, better known as Hibiscus, a young off-Broadway actor who had joined the San Francisco hippie revelry, patented in 1968 psychedelic glamour with his extravagant image and attitude, in which he juxtaposed transvestism, LSD and gay liberation. A protégé of beat writer Irving Rosenthal, this connected him with his friend Jack Smith, whose film Flaming Creatures impressed Hibiscus. Under that influx he founded the commune The Cockettes, a wild bunch of hippie drag queens that, in love with old Hollywood, parodied musical shows. Their costumes looked as if they were part of a bad trip. With tons of glitter, another of Jack Smith’s bad habits, their make up was genuinely avant-glam. Without Hibiscus and his anarchic happening component, The Cockettes debuted in New York. Among the people in the audience were John and Yoko, Gore Vidal, Andy Warhol -who would plagiarise them as much as Jack Smith- and other celebrities. Also at Cockettes, in different stages, were Divine; disco star Sylvester; Miss Harlow, from the Plasters Casters; and Tomata DuPlenty, afterwards in Screamers, the Los Angeles punk band.
We shouldn’t forget, before putting an end to this itinerary, the Iggy Pop from the Psychedelic Stooges, who in 1968 jumped onstage in a maternity dress, with his face full of flour and a metallic wig. Or the GTOs, a groupie band produced by Zappa –who appears as a transvestite on the cover of the Mothers of Invention album We´re Only In it for the Money, as the Rolling Stones had previously done for single Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby– that provided clothes and make up to another of Zappa’s signed projects, the Alice Cooper Band.