Psychotica rides a twisted new wave of glam rock, from Spacehog to Imperial Drag, as the queer costumes of the 1970s become the openly gay musical platform of today. James Patrick Herman surfs the Zeitgeist. Photographs by Nitin Vadukul (From the November 1996 issue of OUT magazine)
It's a sticky L.A. day at Lollapalooza '96 - humidity that inspires thousands-strong crowd of beefy straight metalheads to, circuit-queen-like, shed their shirts at Irvine's Meadow Amphitheater - and no one's feeling the heat more intensely than Psychotica's sweaty, silver mohawked frontman, Pat Briggs, who's dressed in a skintight rubber bodysuit and attached to a spinning Plexiglas crucifix on stage. Such is the high price of fashion.
Unlike in previous years, gay people have low visibility both onstage and in the audience at this Metallica-led Lollapalooza, a reality reflected in its nickname, Testosterpalooza. But opening act Psychotica, New York City's neo-glam rockers, are determined to pick up the slack. Briggs leaps off the cross, through billows of exploding yellow smoke bombs, and then right off the stage he's a fierce, controlled, wiry bolt of energy. The visual void left in his wake is filled by Sophia Ramos, a Vampira-inspired black goth rock chick; when not wailing soulfully, she tongues an invisible lover and mimes masturbation with exceptional flair.
Walking into the audience with wireless mike in hand, every vein in Briggs' neck is taut, bulging as impressively as his apparently cucumber-size, barely contained package, straining the already frayed seams of his glimmer suit. At song's end he announces, apparently without irony, "If it weren't for prostitution, I wouldn't be here today!" For a moment it's uncertain whether the crowd will applaud or shout in unison, "Crucify the faggot!".
But they do neither. These beer-guzzling, long-haired redneck boys are shocked into silence - into submission. Briggs emerges triumphant, the conqueror. Final score: hetero metalheads: 0; homo glam rocker: 1.
Blame it on grunge backlash or pre-millennium wackiness or the cyclical nature of history. Whatever the cause, there's no disputing the fact that American culture is suddenly in the throws if a love affair with glamour - specifically, traditional feminine glamour, but even the bizarre, futuristic bastardization that Briggs flaunts. The evidence is considerable: When celebrity macho, macho men - media kings (Howard Stern), sports greats (Dennis Rodman), movie stars (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze Stephen Dorff) - get in touch with their inner drag queens in clear view of the public eye, really, what more proof is needed?
Here's another important scrap: Rock n' roll has finally outgrown that grungy ol' flannel shirt. Glam rock is back. Dubbed "rock n' roll with lipstick" by John Lennon, glam was way ahead of its time in the 70's. Now it seems very timely indeed, perfectly of the moment, with a slew of exciting major-label bands dabbling in glitter rock revisionism - Psychotica, Spacehog, Imperial Drag, Sponge, Nancy Boy - and this past summer's return of glam icons: Gary Glitter, looking as shiny as ever, starred in the recent tour of the Who's Rock Opera Quadrophenia; New York's legendary club Jackie 60 celebrated a packed-to-the-rafters David Bowie tribute, replete with go-go dancing thin white dukes; and during VH1's 7 Days of the 70's, the man himself pranced across television screens nationwide.
Of all the musical genres, glam rock is perhaps the most intellectual, the most postmodern, and - show tunes included - the gayest. Which accounts for the interest of filmmaker Todd Haynes, director of the art-house masterpieces Poison and Safe. Haynes is developing a new film called Velvet Goldmine, the title borrowed from an obscure Bowie B-side from 1971. In the downtown Manhattan office Haynes shares with longtime friend and producer Christine Vachon, he takes a break from casting (names like Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor are being tossed around, but Jaye Davidson will not, as previously rumored, be playing late T. Rex frontman and Bowie rival Marc Bolan) to speak about his "valentine to the area of glam - a false history drawing from the myths of real-life people." A fitting word, valentine, for Haynes admits that his movie focus on "a love affair between an American [Lou Reed crossed with Iggy Pop] and a Brit [based on Bowie]." The film is set in a time before Bowie figured out that he was actually a closet heterosexual, a realization that apparently also struck Reed, once a gay trannie-fan, now loath to discuss those days.
Haynes appears visibly influenced by his research: Tall and lanky, with spiked hair, he looks a bit like a retired, post-rehab rocker himself. "It's part of a larger '70's revival, or reevaluation," he surmises, trying to account for the current neo-glam action, "which in the States has been focused more on the silly, pop, Brady Bunch 70's and, on the other hand, Zeppeliny kind of guitar-driven bands. But what I always feel is missing is a look at the cultural climate of the time that allowed for things like glitter rock in ways that I don't think have been possible since. The revivalism has been somewhat dismissive, like, 'Wasn't it a mindless, plastic time?' It was, but especially compared to what followed, it was a uniquely progressive time too.
That decade - and, granted, the tail end of the previous one - has had enormous impact on the contemporary music scene. But say the words music and seventies to a hipster and his response will undoubtedly be: "Punk rock, man!" And to Haynes, that's ridiculous. "Glam rock was far superior to punk," he enthuses, "absolutely, in every way. It attached a very comfortable notion of sexual identity and a belief that the music industry - the mass media - could allow for any direct, authentic communication or expression. The artifice of performance was being flaunted and acknowledged and made fun of and enjoyed and NOT denied.
But can glam get a reaction in the nothing's-shocking '90's? "Some of the shock value of glam is certainly gone," Haynes admits, "but images of Ziggy Stardust are still eerie and fascinating. I think that's because they're not just gay or straight or male or female; the interesting thing about glam rock to me is the way it blurred boundaries. I hope that's returning today. We're now in these nice separatist little categories - gay, straight, black, white - and at best we can all respect each other's differences and not cross those lines. But people are always crossing those boundaries.
Psychotica's Pat Briggs (not to mention eerier rival Marilyn Manson) is not simply crossing, he's exploding boundaries with his vaguely androgynous but nonetheless hard-core, sexually charged persona. (He calls it "the new wave android") But surprisingly, most of the prominent players in the glam revival - unlike their gay-for-pay predecessors - balance gender-bending public personae and private lives as (gasp!) heterosexuals. Indeed, it is Nancy Boy's male-model frontman, Donovan Leitch, who most accurately embodies the spirit of Ziggy Stardust, despite his total lack of visual; shock value (and, many critics say, talent). Leitch lives by the artifice-is-everything, get-famous-quick formula that Bowie patented: Act like a rock star, and sooner or later the right people will treat you like one.
Just as Bowie once hired a gang of unemployed Warhol actors to play the part of record company bigwigs in order to manufacture hype for him in America, Leitch hired New York uberpublicist Jason Weinberg long before he had bothered to record so much as a single (it was far less work that way). He may have shot any hopes of critical respect, but at least he won the fame game and, like Bowie, landed a supermodel (the stunning Kristy Hume) for a mate. How could Bowie himself not approve?
His heterosexuality nothwithstanding, the flamboyant Leitch is a derivative of sexually confusing (mainly British) musicians ranging from present-day fey frontmen Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and Brett Anderson (Suede) to '80's Morrisey (tellingly, a New York Dolls fanatic), 70's Bowie, '50's Little Richard, and perhaps even Elvis, all the way back to dandy archetype Oscar Wilde. "The essence of glam rock," says Todd Haynes. "He constructed himself as an artist the way Bowie constructed himself as a superstar. He was known in Europe and America as a figure, as a 'type' before he had published a single wok. He was elevating artifice to a level of exquisiteness that nature could never match.
"Oscar Wilde and glam rock," Haynes continues, "are the best examples of a camp sensibility that really acknowledges the constructedness of experience, but does it in such a way that is also incredibly beautiful. So it's beautiful at the same time. Which, I guess for me, the first couple Roxy Music records are about as close as you could get to that."
Admittedly, Nancy Boy's recent self-titled debut record does not come very close to that. Their authentically English Electra label mates Spacehog, however, have already scored with a h it song and heavily rotated MTV video for "In the Meantime," the first single from their Resident Alien album. They certainly act like they have: Unlike Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan, and Michael Stipe, this quartet of Manhattan transplants from Leeds, England, act the part of rock stars. They love sex, drugs, rock n/ roll, drugs, and glamour. And drugs. And they are proud of it.
They are even more proud of their songcraft. They realize that (are you listening Donovan Leitch?) retro charm aside, "it's not about imitating the '70s," according to drummer Jonny Cragg. Spacehog update their glam influences with keyboard samples scattered amid the flashy guitar work that are, well, spacey, and confrontational lyrics that leave no room for ambiguity. On their record, a voice-over introduces their latest single "Space is the Place" with a stunning explanation: "This song [deals] candidly with themes of brotherly love and homosexuality." The fact that Spacehog's lineup includes real-life brothers Royston and Anthony Langdon adds an extra level of what society would surely dub "perversity." The lyrics go: "Just because you kiss your brother, it doesn't mean to say you're gay. And just because you're fucking him, it doesn't mean you don't love me." How on earth did this elude the parental advisory sticker police? Not only do Spacehog sing openly of gay sex, they're singing about incetuous gay sex. A perfect 10 on the controversy meter.
Humbly, the brothers shrug off their taboo-breaking achievement; they're unpretentious and riotously funny and, despite their lyrical content, straight-identified. "I'm reasonably straight," clarifies Royston, "but I've had plenty of experiences with the 'homosexual experience' - we just don't work that bisexuality thing."
Anthony, who also has a girlfriend but calls himself "a poof," sheds insight into the band's famously decadent and invigorating live shows. He sounds like every queer boy who came of age in small-town America: "Growing up in Leeds, there was very little aspiration to the whole glamour and theater of what I thought music- and life - should be: theatrical, sensational, and fun, you know? What I found was a lot of testosterone-based, homophobic bullshit. But then I came to New York, and all of a sudden here was this place where you could go nuts." Which is precisely why Royston, and friends Cragg and lead guitarist Richard Steel do onstage, with considerably panache, Jackie O. sunglasses, and a few feather boas thrown in for good measure.
While there's nothing androgynous looking about Spacehog (no amount of boas could hide their boyish faces), genderfuck is at the core of Columbia Records' Sponge and Imperial Drag, a band whose married lead singer and guitarist, Eric Dover, brags "I've spent all of my life in drag." And in a straight, less pretty Boy George-ish kind of way he is a drag queen. Fittingly, them, Imperial Drag's first single from their eponymous debut album is called "Boy or a Girl," and it contains the line "I feel straight, but I'm not so sure."
"A Lot of people tell us that 'Boy or a Girl' is very homoerotic," Dover brags. "We thought glam rock was the perfect vehicle for a song about sexual paranoia and gender-bending and everything gorgeous. It's sexually based music, which is great for an era where people are afraid of their own sexuality. Now is the time to put blush on your face and keep people wondering."
With his equally flamboyant outfits, Sponge's tough, gold-toothed frontman, Vinnue Dombroski, also keeps people curious. His wardrobe is shocking not because it contains pieces of actual women's clothing but because they're being worn by a former grunge poster boy: Sponge's previous album, 1995's Rotting Pinata, was heralded as a worthy example of post-Nirvana guitar rock. It's typical for bands to evolve from album to album; Sponge have made nothing short of a metamorphosis on their recent Wax Ecstatic - they're reemerged shiny (as in vinyl-clad) and new. "We wanted to do an Al Green meets Ziggy Stardust thing," Dombrokski says in his very butch growl of a voice, by way of explaining the presence of "Ziggy-style guitar riffs and grindy feedback" and not one but two songs about drag queens (three, if you count "Have You Seen Mary").
The narrator of "The Drag Queens of Memphis" has a touching tete-a-tete with Presley's tombstone: "With a sparkle boot on the grave of Elvis, he shouted, 'Hey King, I'm here. It's your Queen." It takes serious courage to risk offending Elvis fans (scary Lisa Marie included) but even more chutzpah to turn on a loyal fan base of grunge enthusiasts, whose buying power should not be underestimated. "Rockers have been programmed to believe [glamour] will take away from the integrity of what they do musically," admits Dombroski. "But I'm looking for the flamboyance that's been there since Elvis Presley shook his hips. I love putting on great clothes and shaking my ass at a gig, you know? Who's gonna say my songs are less meaningful because I'm shaking my ass?"
Well, potentially, homophobic rock critics whose cherished ideas about representations of masculinity would be challenged (Dombroski is straight and wants it known that "it takes a real man to wear a dress, as they say," though he claims that "being a man has nothing to do with that little fleshy dolly between your legs"). This ass-skaker's bad boy fondness for musical rebellion can be traced back to his childhood, specifically when he purchased Bowie's 1974 album Diamond Dogsgrunge musicians but... They've been like, ' want to come out of my closet and dress up again.' They're frustrated, they've been waiting for the chance to put on stretch vinyl pants and glitter boots.
Some have already broken their closet doors. Billy Corgan seemingly lives in a pair of tight silver pants, and he's acquired an embarrassing cosmetics habit to boot. The men from Metallica too are toying with eye makeup - yet another sign of a gay-themes bandwagon cruising through MTV land that creatively challenged bands are only too eager to hop aboard. Perhaps since it's becoming such a cool thing to do, rock musicians will begin abusing Revlon the way they previously abused drugs - that is, with careless abandon - before that kind of decadence became so un-PC. But few will push the limits as far as an ingenuously innovative maniac like Psychotica's Pat Briggs.
Briggs purveys an extreme, anti-mainstream persona that, much like Bowie's Stardust, has inexplicably attracted mainstream attention. Despite his band's MTV invisibility (not a good omen for Psychotica's recently released self-titled debut album), Briggs has exposed his music - a compelling mixture if industrial, goth and yes, glam - to the country via the Lollapalooza tour, sweating through 22 cities in sex weeks, with guest vocalist Sophia Ramos and bandmates Ena (guitar), Tommy Salmorin (bass), Enrique Tiru (cello),and Buz (drums). Yet surviving, even winning over Testosterpalooza, may not constitute Briggs' greatest achievement. Every day, 3,500 tourists visiting Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum encounter a fiberglass statue of Briggs' mock crucifixion, a display that must come as a surprise to stroller-pushing suburbanites there to see John Lennon's Sgt. Pepper's costume. And - a little-known fact - Briggs is one of only 14 people who can claim to have been among the cast of the first New York staging of Rent in 1994, when Broadway was a mere twinkle in the then-living composer Jonathan Larson's eye.
But what Briggs is most proud of (he now dismisses Rent as a "politically correct piece of shit") is creating the groundbreaking - and now legendary - queer rock n' roll pleasuredome Squeezebox. Briggs invented the downtown Manhattan club with former fashion designer Michael Schmidt. "We never thought we'd create this monstrous thing that had such a giant impact on the whole town and even the country in some ways," says Briggs. "Because I've toured the whole entry - even the hillbillies in Tennessee were rocking to Psychotica - and I'm not kidding, there's not anywhere I went where people didn't known about Squeezebox." It's stage - which has seen the likes of Courtney Love, Green Day, and Evan Dando, as well as lesser-known queer-fronted bands (Pansy Division, Tribe 8, Extra Fancy) -also gave birth to Psychotica, and it's where a record company executive signed them directly following their debut performance, just over a year before this final Lollapalooza date.
Perhaps as an end-of-tour reward for Briggs, the notoriously cheap American label foots the bill for a black stretch limousine and chauffeur to drive Briggs and friends (drag celebrities Sherry Vine and Lily of the Valley) around West Hollywood after the show, cruising the very same Santa Monica Boulevard that, ironically, Briggs once worked as a child hustler, when he hoped in vain to get picked up in just such a luxurious set of wheels. He spent five years selling his body; along with his acting background, perhaps this is yet another reason Briggs makes such an amazing performer: He's been satisfying strangers since the age of 12.
"Look, Lily, there's my old corner, that bus stop," he shouts, pressing his palms against the tinted windows. The driver steers into the nearby parking lot of the Yukon Mining Co. restaurant, another former haunt. But Briggs' attention stays locked on that bus stop.
The Yukon, which Briggs affectionately dubs "Dennys from Hell." is quintessentially glam - everything is flashy and fake, from the plastic ferns to the baritone-voiced "hostess" to the bodacious, heavily made up clientele. "Look at all this club trash and trannies," remarks Sherry Vine. "There's more jelly in here than Dunkin' Donuts!"
Briggs, by comparison - he sports pink vinyl pants, an oversize X (The Japanese, not the L.A., punk band), white go-go boots - looks out of place, even in this surreal-by-David-Lynch-standards venue. "People try to peg me as a Bowie spin-off," he says. "But that's not where I come from at all. In the early '80's, when I was most impressionable, there were a lot of visually stunning bands - Devo, Bow Wow Wow. I picked up virtually everything I know from that period" - Wow-esque mohawk included. Of course, the Greed Decade's hair bands were a direct result of the glam era's Aqua Net ambition. "Then I guess I'm a third-generation rip-off," he says.
Briggs later admits that his inspiration extends beyond the Reagan years. "Little Richard is the most highly underrated influence of this century," he says. "He's the creator of glam rock - a total screaming queen." And Briggs, as they say, is proud to carry the torch. "The most refreshing thing about Psychotica's show is the theatrics," gushes Lily. "It's all about glamour, and that's what's been missing from music lately."
"I have a lot of respect for Pat," agrees Vine, powdering her shiny nose, "because there aren't a lot of people in rock n' roll that are openly gay. There's a gay chic right now, but that's not the same as being "I'm a fag!" for a bunch of Soundgarden fans. Some of those rockers [at Lollapalooza] were gorgeous but I was terrified I'd get my ass kicked."
For the record, Briggs doesn't like to identify as queer (although, he says, "if somebody really needed to know, I would), he prefers the term rocker. The difference, he explains, "is my life doesn't revolve around my dick. My life revolves around my rock career right now. And that's the way I love it. I really feel I have a good shot of fucking blowing things apart in the near future, and I totally plan on doing it." Thankfully, it will at least be a glamourous destruction.
James Patrick Herman writes for New York and Elle and is a contributing editor at Raygun.