When I was sixteen, we met Duran Duran. When I say we, I mean Momma drove me, my sister, and her friends to an overnight adventure in exotic Roanoke, Virginia. Which blew my mind because it was so unlike her rigid demeanor. We weren’t even allowed to watch television during the week. This version of Nan made us wait in the car, posing as a local journalist to find out where the band was staying. I’d just seen the body snatcher movie. Did this new cool Momma grow out of a pile of goo? One can only imagine what the concierge thought as four teenagers tromped in after that intrepid reporter. I found out later Momma hadn’t even left Dad a note, she’d just decided her daughters had to meet those British dandies with the ruffled puffy shirts who made naughty videos. So, they would, and that was that.
I always wondered what caused this single, solitary event of spontaneity, which was as rare as a white deer in our world of strict rules and regimen. Was it a moment of, “I’ll show him!” meaning Dad? A mid-life crisis? A desperate last attempt to seem cool to her new wave daughters? I didn’t ask questions. It was the first time in my life I can remember being that excited about something besides Myrtle Beach or Busch Gardens. This wasn’t a concert recital or a play. This was a true, outright adventure where anything could happen. My first road trip. I couldn’t believe Momma was doing this for us and the act made her more of a girlfriend than a drill sergeant in my eyes. To this day, the moment remains a double rainbow memory. You remember that shit when you’re ninety.
I loved Duran Duran and was in deep lust with all of them, especially Nick Rhodes, keyboardist extraordinaire. I wanted his babies, like tomorrow. That trip was my first experience with touching fame, seeing its trappings, recognizing what playing a role with the public looked like. After the applause of The Bad Seed, I thought I might want to be famous someday. For the money certainly, but also for the sense of standing out, standing apart. Being unique and being celebrated for that uniqueness. These folks stood out and were applauded where I always felt awkward. Maybe famous people knew something I didn’t? At sixteen, I wouldn’t have been able to understand or vocalize this outright. I just hoped some of the glitter would rub off. They dressed funny and sang about sex on the regular, and it made them famous. I wore only black with a lot of heavy eyeliner, listened to Depeche Mode, The Psychedelic Furs, and The Cure, and had maybe six other friends who understood this. We sat together at lunch and got berated a lot. We didn’t give a fuck, even when they painted a blue square on the bus ramp and labeled it the smoking section. We puffed away, perfecting our scowls, standing just outside the painted blue line. Acting superior. But inside not really believing our own hype.
I thought by observing Duran Duran, I could pick up their mannerisms. Perform their confidence eventually. Maybe by watching the band, I’d have faith in the role I was playing. Don’t misunderstand, I adored being called different for the jolt of confidence mixed with fear it gave my heart. For the notoriety, something I hadn’t been familiar with, but was quickly becoming addicted to because when you’re quiet as a mouse any attention is at least some attention. This was 1984. In the South. The ridicule we got sucked rocks. Cups thrown at us at lunch, insults in the hall because of what we wore and the music we worshipped. I already had too much of that mess at home, so I learned to perform better. All that shit, every jab, became shrapnel I deflected with my “Fuck you!” stare and my “Fuck you!” clothes. Donning my black Schott leather jacket each morning like armor. My own personal brand of Wonder Woman bracelets to ward off the hate. Almost clocking a bitch who made fun of my neon orange socks and pointed boots. But not doing it. Instead walking on and brushing it off like you’ve been here before and nothing sticks to you. Which I did a lot.
We stalked that Roanoke hotel like professionals, flipping through issues of Vogue nonchalantly in the lobby, trying to look casual but mouthing, “Oh, My God” when Nick did a full-on photo shoot complete with bee-sting-lip-mouth pout. In the lobby. In front of us. Flipping his hair for all the world like a big gay Linda Evangelista. Maybe that’s just my sense of time dragging it down to sexy slow motion. Teenage hormones fluttering big time, the lyrics to “Save A Prayer” crossing my vision like a giant pink karaoke cloud as he pouted and preened and posed. It was that impactful. Believe it. After sixteen years of gazing at glossies, I had a full-on rock god in the flesh doing his rock god thing. Momma was up in the room flipping through her own magazines, but an editorial was being played out right in front of me, right here. Anything could happen. Anything.
Sipping Cokes in the hotel restaurant later, giggling, then fainting outright when guitarist Andy Taylor sits at the bar next to us and orders chili. After much discussion and frantic decision-making, all done through our eyes so as to not attract attention, we work up the nerve to send him a drink. Soda, of course, because we ain’t fooling anybody. Fainting again when he comes over for a picture. Simon LeBon joined him, and I levitated. I left my body entirely. Fucking gorgeous. I’d pictured someone shaped like a bulldog, but this was a Great Dane. Simon was big. Like a tree I wanted to build a house in. Now I was the Tex Avery cartoon, stuttering and stammering and eyes bugging and OMG please take a chill pill. Not my finest hour, but my first lesson in play-it-cool hobnobbing with the A-List because when you send someone a drink and they come over to thank you, that’s not a photo-op. That’s a “Meet Cute”—air quotes—with a “What Are You Doing Later?”—air quotes—happening. Maybe. We hoped. Like I said, it was 1984 and Sixteen Candles wasn’t yet so rape-ey. This was our version of Valley Girl but instead of Nicholas Cage on a beach, we’ve got Simon LeBon and Andy Taylor in a bar. Woof.
It was weird to be directly in front of these men we idolized. To see them move three dimensionally. To see them laughing, gesturing, calling, the way our friends would in the halls at school. Our older, cooler, way hotter friends. Andy and Simon were grown ass men, fleshy and fully developed, not flat on a small screen with us squinting to see every detail. They were here, moving, breathing around us. Simon smelled so good. Like leather and warm bread. Andy gave off a perfume of smoke and hair gel, probably Dippity-Do. Not at all unpleasant. Plus, he was exactly my height, which I took as a good sign. We’d be married by Christmas. They had an ease lined with business, like every movement helped their bottom line. I was a social scientist, intent on learning the ways of these confident alien beings who smelled so yummy. I stared at their behaviors like Dian Fossey in a Rwandan jungle. I was the Jane Goodall of new romantics. How did they act the same as their MTV persona? How were they different? What was authentically theirs and what was for MTV to please the fans? Could I tell if I looked really hard? What was the fake part and what was real? Are we bugging them or are they genuinely happy to see us? How authentic is this interaction anyway? A hike up a mountain twice a week for this overthinker might’ve been a good choice back then.
Back in the lobby after lunch, a second photo shoot was happening. I especially watched Nick, who embodied someone I wanted to be. He was beautiful with large doe eyes covered in smokey makeup always glamour perfect. His cupid bow lips always shiny with gloss. His mane of heavily streaked rooster hair always a mess of wild fabulousness which made me want to run my hands through it. Nick Rhodes was The Dandy or The Fop, more than The Rock Star. Think Oscar Wilde in hot pink taffeta over grey tweed. Lots of floppy bows, white cuffs, canes, hats, and brocaded waistcoats. New wave Rimbaud. Adam Ant meets Roxy Music by way of Marc Bolan. A more accessible David Bowie, who always intimidated me with the depth and breadth of his genius. I loved Bowie, but I feared him too. Nick was more digestible. He was on the cover of Tiger Beat. I liked the way he posed all limp hands, nails painted pink but with eyes of steel. Mouth of judgement. I wanted Nick’s confidence, his glamour, but I also wanted to be his girlfriend. I wanted to make love to this perfect androgyne the way Bowie fucked Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, a movie which came out that year about a fated vampiric love triangle featuring Bauhaus in the opening credits. Peter Murphy in black leather writhing in a cage stirred up I knew not what, but it sure stirred up something. I wanted to take that something and use it on my new boyfriend with the great hair.
I didn’t just love this man, I’d also performed him, playing the part of Nick Rhodes at our high school’s Air Band competition two years running. Taking notes from all the videos and pouring it into my portrayal of the sexiest synthesizer sylph alive. What’s Air Band? Imagine lip syncing mixed with air guitar. Everything from Loverboy to Prince, The Go Go’s, Doug E. Fresh, and Van Halen. A lot of football players in dresses and cheerleaders in cleats. RuPaul made drag mainstream, back then it was a joke. Except to us. Me, my sister, and our friends created a “Girls on Film” performance like it was a lip synch for your life. We practiced for hours anywhere we could. At home, in our friend Patsy’s den, on stage at school because we knew a guy with a key. “Rio.” “Hungry Like the Wolf.” “New Moon on Monday.” Over and over with a fire dance through the night.
I created my version of Nick Rhodes based on glossy pictures and videos, having not yet met the future father of my children. All I had to go on was his performance. His character. The vision which got sold to the public, which I understood quite well. My onstage Nick was a sylph of a man, Bowie and Deneuve as one person. Silent and slithery, a Thin White Duke in a French twist. A man who enjoys gliding up and down the keyboards like he wants to either fuck them or eat them. When I pretended to be Nick Rhodes, it was all or nothing. First, I’d stare at the audience as if to say, “Look away, you’re not worthy,” the next minute I’m enticing them to climb onstage. Pantomiming the notes but focusing more on the performance of pantomime. A play of a play of a play. Spontaneity at its greatest zenith. I’ve not felt so free in a moment before or since. Probably because I was every part of myself, maybe for the first time. With everyone there to witness. Scared shitless but doing it anyway.
I loved Air Band. It was way better than acting because you made it up as you went along. With music. I pouted my glossy lips and batted my lashes and tossed my seagull hair. I was a dandy in my white studded jumpsuit. I was masculine but not. Feminine but not. Gorgeous but not. I care but not. This was different than playing a boy in our local The Nutcracker ballet. There, I whined to Momma about playing a tin soldier, here I swooned at the thought of portraying my favorite new romantic. I pranced and preened and moved and pretended I was breaking many hearts on the shores of Sri Lanka like in the “Save A Prayer” video. Silent. Brooding. Deadly.
I want all of that in your head for this next bit. Back in the lobby of the Hotel Roanoke, it came as a great shock to discover Nick Rhodes is shorter than me. By a lot. Yes, folks, my dream lover stood up from his pouting photo session on the lobby’s only chaise—in slow motion, of course—and the top of his rooster-ed hair came to the tip of my nose. Sad trombones everywhere. It wasn’t his height which bothered me, I prefer short men. It was the dashed expectation of a teenaged girl. No matter what, you expect your giants to be giants. To my irrational mind he was taller than Simon. I frantically registered this fact as he walked over to say hello. Cogs were still working when I handed him the scrapbook full of glossies to sign. Then it blew up entirely when he opened to the first page and let out a squeal of recognition so loud and high, dogs in China looked up from their feeding bowls. Nick Rhodes is not only short he’s a screaming queen. Oh dear. I can truly attest it was the first time I internally clutched my pearls and sucked all the air out of the room. An image shattered in a moment. Dammit.
According to my teenaged research, rock gods who filmed themselves on yachts with women draped over them like mink stoles don’t talk like that. Ever. I stood there staring. Speechless. Torn. Beyond thrilled at meeting my idol, beyond in love, just beyond in general. But as he perused the photographs and told the stories behind them, that little voice in my head was screaming, “Gay. Gay. Gay!” A different kind of clue hunt began. Where before I was prepping for performance at school, now I was frantically clicking off evidence which supported my theory we could still make babies together. Gorgeous cheekbones, check. Perfectly coiffed hair, check. Model-perfect angles while being photographed on a chaise, check. Glossy lips, check. Screaming voice which shatters glass like the Memorex commercial? The image I’d seen on MTV didn’t add up with the register he reached in his excitement.
I recall being intensely repulsed. Then immediately ignoring it. Rationalizing it away as an anomaly. Compartmentalizing it. Packing that box and storing it on a high shelf where I didn’t have to look at it. When we told the story at school, we conveniently left out the part where Nick squealed like Rip Torn on The Gong Show with a bag full of glitter. It was 1984 and AIDS. Folks were not ready to handle a rock god with a penchant for pink paisley and falsettos. Not quite yet. Boy George was still getting a lot of shit for his drag. We acted like Nick Rhodes was a deep tenor and left it at that. Back then high talkers got shoved in lockers. I was disgusted by his screeching and its only now I understand its source which was the deep self-hatred of my own nature. My own voice. I’m not ashamed of that because when you know better you do better, Oprah, and isn’t that a wonderful, freeing thing?
When Nick Rhodes married a supermodel two years after I met him, he wore an authentic Victorian pink brocade suit complete with top hat, waistcoat, cane, and spats. Platinum blonde highlights and a cotton candy kisser. He made Liberace look like a teamster and I still loved him to pieces. I still wondered. Maybe he and his wife really were in love. Maybe they were happy. Or maybe in 1986 it was for MTV, for the role performed and not the man. Maybe they were friends. Maybe they’d been lovers. So many maybes it made my head hurt so I put that in a different box and filed it away. Nick signed my book of photos with a flourish as did Simon and Andy. We never saw Roger and the only piece of John I glimpsed was the mountain of hair sprayed to perfection as it dashed past me out the front door. Driving back, the car awash in giggles, tee shirts, buttons, and posters, all I could do was ponder it all from every angle. Because I still couldn’t believe it had happened.
We returned to school and the tall tales began. Before cell phones, you had to wait for your starfucker proof, so I relied on storytelling to convince my friends this had actually happened. While I desperately waited for photos, I told, then retold as much as possible to anyone who’d listen. All the while praying the guy at the Fotomat wouldn’t fuck up, but instead present me with a fat white package of VIP status. It was the first time I’d ever relayed an anecdote before a crowd. Dad’s family are legend when it comes to holding an audience, and here I was carrying on a fine tradition. Of course, I embellished. Andy had promised to teach us guitar, the photographer had let us hold his camera, we met John and Roger, but the pics didn’t turn out. They had even waved at us several times from the stage during the concert. All of which was bullshit. No way was I going to let this newfound popularity go to waste. I needed some folks on my side for once. My clothes might say “Fuck you!” but inside I was loving the attention, something which had recently disappeared at home, which is why Nan’s spontaneous act had seemed so alien.
When those photos arrived? The power gained watching disbelief in the faces of our classmates change to awe was almost worth the years of abuse. Instantly, by meeting my heroes, I’d become one. Prior to this magic, the closest anyone had gotten to fame was a girl in fifth grade who got Sean Cassidy’s autograph. I had that beat by twenty pictures! Old friends still ask me about Duran Duran sometimes. What did I learn from this experience? When you attempt crazy shit, people notice. Notoriety can make you feel included, make you feel a part of something more important than the little space of air I occupied in this part of the world. At least for a little while. People eventually forgot and the abuse returned both at school and at home. But I remembered Nick. I remembered how the band had stood straight and tall. Their chins up. How they moved with ease. In my young mind, I equated this confidence with fame. As a result, fame and its trappings began to fascinate me in earnest. I can’t stress the importance of this experience to my life’s journey. The questions of authenticity and performance which it raised. Living your truth. Performing a lie. Where does the role end and the person begin? What is fake? What is real? Which is a role, and which is me and can you officially lose yourself in a role you play because I would kind of like that.
When I put on black eyeliner and pointy boots, I was playing a role. It was me, but not. Nick showed me he wore a mask as well. Same function, different purpose. We’re both selling ideas, just different ones. Both of us are using hair, makeup, and fashion as armor to wear against a judgmental world. Armor and costume. I hadn’t yet experienced my first drag show, but heavy makeup, floppy bows, big hair, fancy shoes, and exotic locales? Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran—if that’s not drag, I don’t know what is. Call it new wave, new romantic, whatever you want, but that’s a lot of gloss on your lips, darling. Search pictures of the band pre-1985 because they all resemble romantic pirates. I’ll go to my grave arguing Nick Rhodes was my first drag queen. By falling in love with a new romantic rock god at sixteen, I also fell in love with the trappings he came in. All that sartorial stuff which would eventually help me discover every part of myself.
There were other new romantic drag queens I worshipped in those days and every one of them was a doorway. I looked for understanding in the faces of these men with a penchant for paisley. Green Gartside from Scritti Politti filled my every waking moment for three years. The lovely and talented Richard Butler from The Psychedelic Furs, Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music, Adam Ant and his pirate boots. If you were wearing lace or eyeliner, I wanted you to be my boyfriend, my friend, my lover, and my mentor. I looked to glamorous men to be a confident woman because I could find nothing in the videos of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles, or The Go-Go’s. My high school years were spent playing the part whether onstage, in class, in marching band, or at home. Performing so I wouldn’t get into trouble and doing as little as possible because I was tired from performing. After tenth grade, I just didn’t give a fuck. I bobbed my hair, added extra black eyeliner, and adopted a fashion sense which resembled Pretty in Pink sprinkled liberally with British Mod and New York Beatnik. Turtlenecks and leggings and flats and leather. Like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face flipping you the bird.
I wasn’t authentically punk rock because safety pins are for diapers. But back then anything weird was labeled punk rock. Lesser houses like new romantic didn’t exist in a teenage suburban mind raised on Huey Lewis and Molly Hatchet. These days you hear Robert Smith singing about how much he’s in love on a Friday in the aisles of Kroger, but back then? We had folks calling it Satan’s music, which was fine for all eight of us at the “punk” lunch table. We bonded over that, ending up as friends just because we wore black and thought Joy Division’s Closer was a work of art. As I’ve said, I liked being called a weirdo for this reason. It gave me panache. A mystique I never would’ve had otherwise. It felt unearned, as if I’d snuck past the velvet rope at the nightclub. It sure felt better than being called a weirdo just because you were too afraid to open your mouth. Here was a cool role I could adopt and be good at because you never had to talk—you just had to enjoy certain Satan’s music and wear studded bracelets. I’d move cat-like, in a cloud of disinterest, copying lead singer Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode. Slinking with a “Fuck you!” stare to my locker. Clad in black, confident, even though I’m shitting myself inside. More like a cat at the vet. Armored pretend confidence. Fake and thick on my person to ward against the insults and eyes which move up and down in quick and final judgement. I curated my outfits each morning to become more. Of what, I didn’t know. Just more. Shock them. Dare them. Scare these fuckers who think you’re strange. Let your clothes be a subtle fuck you to John, the basketball captain who doesn’t know you exist, or to that bitch in third period who called you trash.
Dressing for school became like theater. Like drag. My bedroom mirror was backstage. The bus was the wings. The minute you entered the school’s front door and breathed in the sour milk air of the cafeteria you were in the spotlight. Until that final bell and all your extracurriculars are over, until you collapse in bed every night exhausted from performing. Each and every day without end, until one day you drop and die. Or so it seemed. Life appeared to be a never-ending run of the same thankless performances. No Tony Awards just show after show and a wrap party you can’t attend. Hundreds of thousands of plays in four acts. All in a row one after another. Which made me antsy. Is that all there is, Peggy Lee?
I was antsy as far back as middle school. Restless. Questioning everything presented as a life path. My clearest memory is of a slender boy from England bringing his new album to class, Depeche Mode’s People Are People. This was 1981 and Depeche Mode wouldn’t chart here for a few years, but this boy had come to school and brought treasure. My Beatles moment. Slender British boys in black leather. Pop beats heavy on the synthesizer with a secret meaty layer of rock, leather, and sex. Like they’re one way, then another way when the parents leave the room. Instant lust, especially for aforementioned rock god Dave Gahan. Let’s talk about why he’s the only man in the universe who makes a vest sexy. The only man who can carry off red patent leather cowboy boots onstage and not make it look like a Seinfeld episode. I suppose if I’m honest, Dave is my first drag queen. Arrogance, daring, leopard moves. Glamour and eye makeup and leather everywhere you look. Discovering Depeche Mode saved my life because I saw other paths besides a fenced backyard and babies. I didn’t want to be in a band necessarily but listening to Depeche Mode made me want to be them. To move through a room and as you pass people whisper behind their hands because they’re wondering about your motives as well as curious about where the hell you came from. They had something I didn’t. Something I desperately wanted. In 1981 any information was left to magazines and import singles from the record store because we didn’t have cable yet. It wasn’t just Dave was British, and, by that definition, exotic. Dave made me feel the same things I felt when I snuck Dad’s John Jakes novels to summer camp. Warm and tingly. Dangerous and sharp like glitter. Shiny and beautiful like star shine. I wanted more of it.
Flash forward. I’d spent five years studying my idols, their clothes, their moves, their music and lyrics, all in an attempt to forge some protective armor to wear against impending adulthood. Things had gotten much worse at home, school felt like a dead end, and I’d stopped caring about much at all. But I did care about music and musicians and the late-night lives they led, which seemed dangerous. It was all I wanted. I’d spent the last few years acting like a groupie, which meant I hit every concert which came to town way past my bedtime. Getting dolled up in my best black and ripped anything, gripping my fake ID like it was a golden ticket because that’s what it was. A ticket into an entire Andy-Warhol-like-factory of different people than the ones I saw every day. People who smoked and slapped and grabbed and cursed. People who got me to stay awake so late going to school the next morning felt like a psychedelic dream. My people. Momma created a starfucker monster with that first golden ticket. I’d sucked on Fame’s energy and needed more. Senior year, my friend Anne drove us to every concert in her red Ford Fiesta where we’d hang backstage hoping to meet the boys. Because it was always about the boys. Michael Hutchence of INXS handed my sister a Heineken from the stage. Anne helped The Cure’s Robert Smith carry his twelve-pack through a hotel lobby. I watched a dozen little groupies sit at his feet like acolytes while he sat cross-legged above them in a shitty hotel armchair. A punk rock Buddha clad in black. Over and over, they asked why he’d cut his hair. To every question, he’d sit silently, probably drunk, and smile a knowing Cheshire cat smile.
What concert we went to depended on how much gas money we had. Most of our time was spent downtown, a dangerous foreign land where our suburban classmates were concerned. Best avoided at all costs. But I lived for the reputation I earned by going to see Gene Loves Jezebel on a random weekday night. Tuesday’s nerd in Trigonometry became Wednesday’s badass hero. Totally worth the mind-numbing exhaustion as far as I was concerned. I touched Richard Butler’s right foot while standing in the front row at The Psychedelic Furs concert in UVA’s Memorial Gym. Can you say that? Momma was strict, so I didn’t earn my groupie badge until after she moved out. Dad bragged how he raised us as wildflowers, meaning he subscribed to the notion if you fall in water, you get wet. Meaning if we got arrested, he’s not getting out of bed. Carte blanche with one big caveat handed out freely is a rare and precious thing and not something to be trifled with. I knew the enormity of this gift my other friends didn’t have. They looked at me with such envy because of it. Imagine. I’d spent sixteen years following rules to the letter. Buster Brown shoes tied up tight and straight A’s and a spanking if my tongue was sharp or I couldn’t keep my hands to myself. Now, I have no curfew. I can literally do whatever I want—just don’t get into trouble. From zero to sixty on the life train overnight. When my friends were saying they had to go home I was asking, “What’s next?” Driving around in my blue ’67 AMC Rambler with no power steering after everyone’s asleep like that curly redhead in Dazed and Confused. Where’s the party, man?
The person who accompanied me most on these late-night sojourns was Anne, whose mother was a journalist and a divorcée, something very glamorous and exotic back then. Very Mary Tyler Moore. This meant we had an empty garden apartment at our disposal because journalists travel. A lot. I drank my first Michelob Dark in that apartment. Smoked my first clove cigarette there too. Hours of unsupervised late nights. We weren’t hellraisers, just teenagers. Our transgressions were limited to purloined wine coolers, those horribly smelly cigarettes, and fake concert stamps inked with blue pen under the yellow lights of the Lum’s parking lot when the bouncer decided to be a dick with the ID’s. Standing there while someone painstakingly recreated the stamp on the back of your hand, your heart racing as you approached the front door. The kick you felt when you got in, like a drug high. Anne and I lived for that kick, something we could never get in history class listening to Miss Giannini ramble on about city states.
I recall climbing into the giant metal sculpture in front of the federal building downtown and setting the rods slamming and banging against each other like giant Pixie Stix until our brains were filled with the clanging of iron. It was 2 a.m. and no one else was awake, and this outpouring of metal screams was the only thing in the world. It felt important to make it as loud as humanly possible so that someone, anyone, would hear. It filled my entire head, my entire soul. It was the only sound in the universe, and it echoed far and wide for many minutes against the city skyline, sounding for all the world like a call to arms. Now, there’s a fence around the sculpture, and I mourn the little punk ass kids who won’t know the joy I did. When the vibration was so deep my blood could feel it.
I remember The Red Hot Chili Peppers performing naked while wearing argyle socks on their dicks. Me throwing up in an alley after a particularly gooey GWAR show. Five-dollar nights at the Jade Elephant in July with zero air conditioning and early Chicago Frankie Knuckles house music cramming itself into our ears. So much sweat. So many $2 pitchers sold to underage kids dressed in black. The rank smell of the punk club, PB Kelly’s, as our favorite band, Ten Ten, hit the stage. A mixture of day-old cigarette smoke, urine, stale beer, and the metallic sharp tang after an old-fashioned camera bulb pops in your face. We lost PB Kelly’s in one of the big floods and folks rowed through its crumbling walls in boats. It was a dump and I adored it. The pancakes were so bad at Aunt Sarah’s at 3 a.m. and we ate them anyway. Anne and I wore out our matching white Van sneakers tromping the downtown streets in the blazing summer sun after high school graduation when everything and nothing seemed infinite. Posing for pictures like Vogue models and exploring the university campus of our hometown felt like a holding pattern I wasn’t sure I wanted. We walked all over in those white Vans until they wore the grey dirt of Richmond and there was a frayed hole in the big toe. Just being young. Just figuring shit out. Just hanging. Smoking Merits purchased for $0.85, $0.89 with tax at the Regency Mall Rite-Aid. Just trying like hell to look cool.
Anne and I traveled to Manhattan for our graduation trip, vowing to never come back. Instead, we did all the things you do. We allowed New York to grab us by the scruff of the neck, turn our chins skyward, and become, if only for a week, those people in the pictures we posed for. Vogue people. Studio 54 people. Andy Warhol’s factory people. Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring people. Talking Heads people. Grace Jones people. Cool people. Not Virginia people. We ate knishes and pretzels with mustard whenever we wanted just like adults do. Let pizza grease slide down the backs of our hands and got haircuts at Astor Place because that’s where all the punks with great mohawks went. We pretended we were Cooper Union art students and sat in Washington Square looking for boys while our friend James fucked the Swedish stewardess he picked up on the plane back at the hotel, a woman twice his age. We watched John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis pretend to be Olivia Newton John’s Physical video in a horrible movie called Perfect! Yes, folks, I saw Perfect! in a sticky Times Square theater and howled like a hyena while throwing popcorn at the screen. We all did. It was 1985.
Later that week, these two 18-year-olds bribed the doorman of the legendary Danceteria club where Madonna got her start and where $40 got us into twelve floors of art, boys, dancefloors, and liquor. Lots and lots of liquor. After boys, liquor was the thing which got me going and the fact I had twelve bars to choose from was more than my “Little Girl Lost” persona could bear. It was an inspirational night if your goal is to be New York cool. We heard a then-unknown Chris Isaak play a set in the basement while wearing a blue spangly suit which reminded me of the Hee Haw show my grandparents watched. I had my first amaretto sour on the roof while looking at the skyline all lit up like a festival, the water tanks outlined against the night sky. I felt like I was in a gangster movie. I felt the need to walk like Michele Pfeiffer in Scarface. Sipping my drink, dreaming about living here and making it as an artist. I looked to the gorgeous, blonde, mohawked boy on my left. Yeah, I could live this role.
Anne and I had met Bartlett downstairs, where his “good hair” shone like a lighthouse beacon amid the dark rooms and people shoving their way past you. It was one of the criteria we had, good hair. Born of our love of all things new romantic, British, and bad boy. Anne had a weakness for Steve Stevens, guitarist for Ratt, but her main man was Adam Ant. Bartlett had all our criteria and then some, even though he wasn’t a British rock god, but a photography student. It was like one of my idols stepped out of a magazine, a genie’s wish come true. You could say I was enamored instantly. Bartlett’s good hair was a giant, massive wave of blond mohawk, not shaved on the sides like some pugnacious skinhead, but coiffed up like a rock god rooster. Bartlett was the one who’d introduced us to these delicious drinks, and, currently, the buzz I felt was only matched by the buzz I got from looking at his perfect blond punk locks which grew, expanded, then cascaded down the back of his black leather jacket like a great yellow cockscomb. We spent hours with Bartlett, exploring every floor of Danceteria then tearing into an early diner breakfast afterward. Walking until we got tired. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, attempting to leech some sort of something from this cool New York boy so we could carry it back with us to suburbia.
Bartlett was a photography student who lived in Brooklyn, which meant something way more dangerous back then. I recall touching the sleeve of his jacket as often as I could, hoping some of the cool would rub off. Anne and I both fell for him super hard. This sensitive boy who looked like a rock god but acted like a quiet hurt puppy with big eyes I wanted to kiss. Bartlett was a button. I wanted to fuck him. Anne did too.
Sadly, I can date the beginning of the end of our friendship to that night. Because he chose me, and you better believe I chose him back. At eighteen, my need for a rock god outweighed my experience about the consequences such a decision would make on friendship. Today, I wouldn’t make the same choice, but everyone starts off young and dumb. Bartlett and I ended up just friends anyway. Now, I know why I gravitated to the good hair. It wasn’t lust. Well, not all of it, let’s be honest. Bartlett wasn’t someone I wanted to just know intimately he was someone I wanted to emulate. To have good hair. To be good hair. To be studying art in New York. To be sensitive little me, but with a better circumstance. Bartlett seemed to have more choices and so many less people judging those choices. I needed all of that in my life. At that age, I couldn’t vocalize or even comprehend how to get it, so just being near it was enough. I didn’t think about consequences. My gut’s need took over. A rock god had stepped out of the poster and chosen me. Which meant all common sense went out the window. Which meant the bonds of friendship ended, eventually fading away to sweet memories. Mind movies forged in that pied à terre every time Anne’s mother was away, or on the streets of Richmond, and at every concert between here and eternity. I picked the boy over the friend and shame on me. When you know better, you do better. Through this loss I learned a valuable lesson, but it would take many decades before I understood exactly what it meant.