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An Excerpt From "Formerly Wanton" The Story Of A "Let's Pretend To be Gay" Rock Band Of The 1980s

Generically Wanton

Generically Wanton

(According to Wikipedia ” John Mendelssohn is an American writer, journalist, musician and graphic designer, best known for his rock criticism in Rolling Stone.  Critic Barney Hoskyns has called him “one of the funniest writers in English”. This is an excerpt from his upcoming novel “Formerly Wanton”)


Timi hooked the band, Formerly Wanton, up with a powerful agent who got them onto the second half of The Heroines’ huge North American tour, and the group shot a video, directed by a woman, Sylvia Alvarez, who’d made her name directing for the Dutch heavy metal band Deva Station. She suggested that the group be seen cavorting in a drag bar in the Valley. When they swaggered in as a unit, the place’s regular patrons, cowed by their obvious heterosexuality, would see the writing on the wall and surrender the place, to be replaced by an army of wanton strumpettes. The turnout for the shoot was so huge that many girls had to be sent home with an apology and a copy of “Androgynous,” a token of Existence Records’ appreciation. If there was one thing in the world that was easy to do, it was recruit a great, great many young women to appear in a video that, with luck, would be exhibited on MTV. Somehow, almost as many drag queens too were somehow persuaded to participate.

Waiting for all the cameras and lights to be set up, Jeth and Dirk compared notes. Jeth conceded that a few of the drag queens were gorgeous. Dirk, ever more guarded, noted that a comparable number looked a little bit ridiculous. “This just in,” Jeth, in a black fishnet top with marabou cuffs, said. “We look a little bit ridiculous.”

“Yes,” Dirk agreed, “but we’re supposed to.” The makeup and hair person had rendered him weirdly evocative of Catherine Deneuve, scaled way up.

There was an incident about an hour into the shoot, as the director was shooting closeups of the four Formerlies miming with a handheld camera. One of the drag queens who hadn’t been persuaded to cede the dancefloor in front of the stage to the genetic girls stepped on the foot of one of them, very much the wrong one, who shrieked, “Why don’t you watch where you’re stepping, faggot,” whereupon the drag queen wondered, “Why don’t you suck my cock, slut?” Whereupon the young woman relieved the drag queen of her enormous bouffant pink wig. Whereupon a small brawl broke out. It wasn’t entirely clear that the director was eager for it to end; behind her camera, she seemed to bebeaming with delight. Jeth wondered if she might have orchestrated the whole thing.

Existence Fed-Ex’d a videocassette of the completed video to the group 96 hours later; Sylvia had apparently not slept for three days. She’d featured the brawl, and to wonderful effect, cutting back and forth between real girls and drag queens trying to pull off each other’s false eyelashes and scratch out each other’s eyes, and the Formerlies hamming it up a storm — and actually looking quite pretty, if they had to say so themselves. Terri wasn’t pleased with the fact that Dev was featured at least as much as he, but a call to LA revealed that Existence had already submitted the clip to MTV, which could be putting it into rotation in as little as 18 more hours.

Before they went on stage that night in Dallas, they learned that MTV hadn’t liked the clip, but adored it, and put it immediately into mod-rot, or moderate rotation. If enough viewers called to request it, it would go into hourly rotation. Terri gazed dreamily into the middle distance, and said to no one and everyone, “I’m going to be a superstar,motherfucker.”

The first Heroines’ audiences for whom the group performed generally detested them, to the tune of trying to jeer them from the stage. But then “Androgynous” got added to the playlists of three of the four most emulated radio stations in the country, and hundreds of others immediately added it too. By the time the tour reached Minneapolis, the record had broken into the Top 10, with a bullet to indicate that Billboard, at least, expected it to go even higher. Kids kept waving devil’s-horns at them, as though they were Black Sabbath. Jeth kept responding with a hitchhiking gesture, hoping it might catch on among the group’s new fans, but the devil’s-horns weren’t so easily supplanted.

Someone came from Rolling Stone magazine. Someone came from Spin. Someone even came from Creem. Terri’s view was that he should be allowed to speak for the band. He was the frontman, after all, and thus the band’s avatar. In fairness, it had been his new vision, as he saw it, that had gotten the band onto the proverbial fast lane. Never mind, Jeth thought,that it was Symphony’s suggestions regarding image and his own guitar riff that were really responsible for the Formerlies’ recent ascent. Never mind too that he and Dirk were a lot wittier, a lot nimbler-witted, than Terri. But if Terri wanted to deal with the rock press, which appeared to Jeth to consist either of snide little backstabbers or the sort of sycophants whose sycophancy left you feeling as though you’d been 36 hours without sleep, go get ‘em, dude.

Jeth was present long enough at one of the conversations with the guy from Spin to hear Terri say that he thought everyone was bisexual, whether or not he or she would admit it. It had worked well, expressed almost identically, for David Bowie 15 years earlier; who was to say it wouldn’t work again, especially when the writer looked around 14?

Photographs needed to be taken to accompany the articles the backstabbers and sycophants were going to write. In Cleveland, Terri brought in a pair of makeup artists and a hairdresser, putting their services on the Existence Records tab, and ensured that he was at the front-center of every grouping, though in what would become the most famous shot, he and Dev, pressed cheek to cheek, pouted up a storm while Jeth and Dirk stood two feet behind, slightly out of focus, seeming not entirely sold on the idea, in Dirk’s case, or even slightly embarrassed, in Jeth’s.

Those Midwest farmers daughters might really have made one feel all right back in the Beach Boys’ heyday, but the Formerlies found that in 1987, the maidens of the heartland sorely lacked their Hollywood sisters’ panache. The Hollywood tartlets wore their sluttishness with a sort of defiant pizzazz of which their Midwestern equivalents had none.

Jeth thought a lot of them seemed just a bit embarrassed, and few were nearly as artful with makeup. The good news, though, was that they turned out in ever-larger droves. The group arrived at Cream City, where they were to perform in Milwaukee, while The Heroines enjoyed a night off down in Chicago, to learn that the place had been sold out for 48 hours.

They came on stage that night to the most rapturous greeting they’d ever received, and it inspired their best performance since Dev had joined the band. Jeth was hugely amused to see in the crowd a few boys with Terri-ish eyeliner and beauty marks like Dev’s. But they didn’t stand out nearly so much as a Middle Eastern-looking guy in glasses, glistening with sweat — all those bodies in such a small space — alternately beaming up at the band and dancing with a young woman hardly less out of place than he, a bookish-looking thirtysomething in glasses, no makeup, and very plain, coed-ish attire.

To Jeth’s amazement and delight, they somehow talked their way backstage after the first set, and stood in the dressing room doorway looking sensationally incongruous, but nonetheless beaming to beat the band. Jeth figured, since none of the tartlets present appealed to him, that he’d relieve Dirk of the responsibility of making them feel at home, and made his way over to introduce himself. The woman, Caroline something, told him breathlessly that it was an honor to meet him, which nearly made him laugh aloud. The guy, Abdul Wahed Al-Zumor (it said on his University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Dept. of Engineering business card) was getting his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.

It was his view, stated over and over, that the Formerlies “rocked out.” He expressed this view with such enthusiasm and ingenuousness that Jeth wished he had a spoon with which to eat him up.

“It’s really a pleasure to meet people like yourselves,” Jeth said, feeling almost Dirkishly charming. “You’re so unlike most of the people who seem to like us.”

“Oh, the pleasure is entirely our own,” al-Zumor insisted, his teeth enormous and white against the darkness of his complexion. “It is our honor to be able to tell you how very much we enjoyed your performance.”

“Just out of curiosity,” Jeth said, “what other artists do you like?”

“David Hockney,” Caroline said. “A watercolorist you may have heard of. I have a framed print of his Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy in my study.” Now Jeth wanted to eat up her too.

“I meant artists as in musical performers,” he said.

“Cat Stevens,” al-Zumor said eagerly, his huge grin growing slightly huger at the mere thought. “Simon and Garfunkel. I can’t count the number of copies of Bridge Over Troubled Water I’ve worn out. Oh, and Carly Simon.”

“Wow,” Jeth said, managing to keep from laughing aloud — but out of delight more than disdain — “that’s some very distinguished company.” It was like someone saying his great passions were ballet, chamber music, Greek drama, and mud wrestling.

Terri came over with two top-heavy tartlets whose expressions gloated, “We got the singer.” Caroline’s was that of a teenaged girl being approached by David Cassidy in 1971, but Terri was interested in neither her nor al-Zumor. It was Jeth to whom he wanted to speak, out of Jeth’s new friends’ earshot. He wanted to tell — not ask — Jeth to get al-Zumor and Caroline out of the dressing room. He found them embarrassing. “Do you think you’d see them in The Heroines’ dressing room?” he demanded.

Jeth pretended to consider the question, and then beckoned Caroline and al-Zumor to follow him into the center of the dressing room, there to meet Dirk, who of course charmed them, and Dev, who’d have much preferred continuing to chat up the beautiful long-necked Somalian-looking girl on whom he’d set his sights. Jeth looked back at Terri
to see steam coming out of his ears.

As Jeth escorted his unlikely new friends out, al-Zumor appeared on the verge of tears. “This has been an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” he said.

But the fun was only beginning, as Dev fell over, taking with him most of the sandwiches and soft drinks with which promoters had become contractually obligated to stock the group’s dressing rooms. Jeth and Dirk had both noticed that their new drummer seemed to have balance issues. At first they’d assumed that it might be a problem of abuse of a substance other than pot or alcohol, as he seemed to have no interest in either. When Jeth finally asked about it, Dev explained that he’d first become aware of the problem as a boy, when he’d desperately wanted to be a star cricket player, as his father and older brother had been, but his proclivity for losing his balance and upsetting the wicket without the ball even being bowled had rendered his dream unachievable. It was a good thing that drummers got to perform sitting down. Dirk had had the good idea of telling Dev that if he should ever topple over in public view for any reason, all would be instantly forgiven if he made it seem that unspecified substances were the culprit. What, after all, could be more rock and roll than the inability to remain standing?

By the time the tour dipped five days later into the Southeast, with shows in Memphis, Raleigh, and Atlanta, “Androgynous” was No. 4 on the Billboard chart and No. 3 on Cashbox’s, the album had been certified gold, and the iconic photo of Terri and Dev cheek to cheek shared the cover of the new Creem with Empress. Here we go again, said the headline, a reference to the resurgence of what the magazine called let’s-pretend-to-be-gay rock. Existence Records was insisting that the group allow them to furnish limousines to take them to all their performances now — one for Terri and another for the three others; only later would it emerge that the cost (half again what it would have cost a civilian to rent a limo) would be deducted from the group’s royalties. According to the article, Terri wasn’t able to envision himself staying with the group for much longer than another year, or making more than one more album. “To be honest,” the article quoted him as having mused, “I’m not so sure these guys would be able to play the music I’m hearing in my head.

“Says the man who can’t tune a guitar,” Dirk laughed, but a little hollowly.

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