Not A Misspent Youth, Part 6: Fleshtones, Somewhere In France, 1988

Once again, someone has posted a scene from my youth on YouTube, and it’s a doozy. (Thanks to Fleshtones biographer Joe Bonomo for bringing it to my attention.) This is the Fleshtones, circa 1988, somewhere in France, performing the 2-minute super rock “In My Eyes You’re Dead” on a local program, no doubt promoting a gig. Why Peter Zaremba is sitting at a desk in the beginning I cannot tell you. Please enjoy:

This song appeared on the LP The Fleshtones Present: Time Bomb, The Big Bang Theory. The album featured the band’s many side projects, including the Peter Buck-produced Full Time Men, in which I also played bass, my own short-lived Cryin’ Out Loud, Zaremba’s Love Delegation, a few other side projects, and some Fleshtones tunes that hadn’t made it onto LPs.

“In My Eyes You’re Dead” was inspired by graffiti Zaremba saw somewhere in NYC. An angry soul had spray-painted the song’s title on a wall, and it stuck with Peter. He and Keith wrote the tune. They sang a lot about partying and girls, but they also really loved digging into what they called “the revenge motif.” “In My Eyes You’re Dead” is one of three Fleshtones recordings on which I played bass in my two-year tenure with the band.

 

Almost True: The Real, Realer, and Realest of the Music Movies

The wonderful Weeklings published my essay, Almost True: The Real, Realer, and Realest of the Music Movies  in which I cite Almost Famous, That Thing Your Do!, Georgia, and Sling Blade (yes, Sling Blade) as getting as close to the experience of being in band as a film can. Bonus rockin’ video clips. (There are more films that get pretty close, but those will have to wait for Almost True, Too.) Click HERE to enjoy.

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Alex Chilton, A Personal History

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Alex Chilton, RBW, Jack, outside Alex’s Treme, New Orleans, cottage, spring, 1998

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, my wife Holly George-Warren‘s biography of Alex, hits bookshelves this week. (You can keep up with events and enjoy videos and reviews at the Facebook page.) In advance of that auspicious occasion, Paper magazine commissioned me to write an essay about how Alex and his music and life impacted my family. I’ve pasted the first paragraph below, with a link to the rest of the piece. Please enjoy!

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Technically, my wife Holly George-Warren worked on A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton for about three years, but she’d been talking about it for almost two decades. A fan since the ’70s, she met Alex when he was washing dishes in New Orleans in the early ’80s. He was in the “rags” part of his riches-to-rags-to-riches arc, scraping jambalaya off tourists’ plates to make ends meet. Holly and Alex hit it off. A couple years later, he produced her band Clambake, an early step on his winding path back to musical activity. I came on the scene in 1987, when Holly’s band Das Furlines and my band the Fleshtones shared a bill. All I knew of Alex was that he’d been the 16-year-old white singer of The Box Tops, a kid who’d sounded like a 40-year-old black man on the 1967 smash “The Letter.” I’d heard-tell of his ’70s cult band Big Star, but I’d not checked them out. I learned more — a lot more — via Holly’s stories of Alex, and her expansive record collection, which included Box Tops LPs and the Big Star oeuvre alongside Alex’s eclectic, occasionally slapdash, intentionally confounding solo work. Holly also possessed The Cramps classic debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us, which Alex produced. I am partial to Big Star, but Holly loves it all.

                                                                                                                         Read more HERE.

Not A Misspent Youth part 5: Who Wants Gum and Pizza

Once in a while, my past pops up on YouTube. So far, it’s been very pleasurable, and this clip, circa early 1983, is no exception. (Thanks to Julie House for bringing it to my attention.) This is footage of Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls gigging at the 688 Club in Atlanta. That’s me on bass in the loud sweater. This was one of our first performances. I was seventeen, a senior at Northside School of the Performing Arts, majoring in drama, minoring in music. (I’ve written a good bit about this here and here.) My best friend Todd Butler is on guitar. “Pizza” is the first song Todd, Ru and I wrote together, in the front room of Todd’s house, before Todd’s mom kicked us out. We never recorded it, and prior to this, I thought it was lost to the ether. (More about Todd and me here.)

Like a lot of Wee Wee Pole video (maybe all), this is courtesy of Dick Richards, of Atlanta’s American Music Show. The American Music Show was a public access variety program that chronicled a glorious time in Atlanta’s New Wave Queer Underground. Did Dick and his cohorts know they were creating invaluable documents? I suspect they did. It didn’t cross my mind, though. I was quite in the moment, and not taking time to do much but live, live, live. These clips, a few photos, some boxed-up letters, and the music that survives are as close as I have to a diary of a seismic, charmed time. My gratitude to The American Music Show runs deep.

This video captures the golden age of Wee Wee Pole, when the blush was still very much on the rose. Soon Gina and Chrissy, the U-Hauls, would get fed up and quit, but in this video, it’s all about love and excitement (and Krogering). The interaction between Ru and the gals is priceless. I cannot explain the sweater I am wearing.

Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Cross Dressers for The Bitter Southerner

I’ve posted several times about my time with RuPaul in the 80s, and I’ve written about my dear friend Todd Butler, whose courage and love shaped me at least as much as my own DNA. But it took Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner to get me to go deep and find the sweet marrow details of a formative time in my life, a time when those two figures – Ru and Todd – and a third, my grandmother, enriched my life immeasurably.

The Bitter Southerner is a recently-launched webzine promising “a great new story from the South every week.” They’re doing gangbusters, acquiring new subscribers daily. I’d fallen in love with them when I read  Patterson Hood’s essay “The New (er) South.” Like his spoken word piece “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” from his band The Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, Patterson’s musings on “the duality of the southern thing” resonated in my gut. Chuck and Co. launched The Bitter Southerner with “the duality of the southern thing” as a guiding principle. I sent Chuck a note and some blog posts, and we hit it off.

For my essay, Chuck, no stranger to grief and funk and duality, knew my work could be stronger if I knuckled down into the grievous stuff. He kept asking me questions, gently suggesting I amplify aspects of Todd; he wanted more about grandparents’ unusual stories; he suggested I remove RuPaul from the original opening, making him more a supporting character. I did all that, and sure enough, I got weepy. I’d been circling around the painful stuff, treading lightly, for years. But, as ever, that’s where the good stuff is.

As a bonus, sweet Clare Butler, aka Lady Clare, Todd’s widow, unearthed some great pix (a couple below) and my cousin scanned some classic shots of my grandparents from the 60s and 70s.

You can find my essay HERE.

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Lucille Ball with my grandmother, Gammie (glasses), and grandfather. Late 60s.

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Todd and me rocking at The Bistro, Atlanta, ’83, while RuPaul does a costume change. Pic by Clare Butler

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RuPaul rocking The Bistro with Todd and me, ’83. Pic by Clare Butler.

Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls (and opening comic David Cross) FIRST GIG, 1983

More Wee Wee Pole action.

Many thanks to Dick Richardson and James Bond (brother of Senator and Civil Rights icon Julian Bond), whose American Music Show captured much of the ’80s Atlanta New Wave Queer Underworld, and, it turns out, a crucial moment in my life. The clip above contains some entertaining segments of the very first “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and the U-Hauls” gig at the Nitery Club sometime in winter, late ’82 or early ’83. Trash funk combo The Now Explosion graciously invited us to open for them. They’d amassed a substantial fanbase, and Ru and the U-Hauls had performed with them as go-go dancers. The place was packed. Folks were mighty curious about the drummer-less band featuring the two high school kids who’d joined forces with scene-maker Ru. Even then, he was calling himself a “superstar in exile.”

I was 17, barely two years older than my son Jack is now. My dear friend Todd, the redhead Ru introduces as Yettiva Antoinette (or something) was 18. Ru was 22. I have no idea how old the U-Hauls were. They were easily fed up and quit a few months later.

My old friend David Cross, also 18, was on the bill, too. He’d just finished his set, which went great. He and Todd and I were drama majors at Northside School of the Performing Arts. (Todd and I minored in music. Northside was like a college, with a major and minor.) Todd, also a visual artist, had designed a poster that was all over the school. Drinking age in Atlanta was 18 at that time, so technically, high school seniors could get in. And they did.

I think this was David’s first official stand-up gig, although he’d braved some amateur nights. You can see him around the 1:15 mark, putting a cigarette in my mouth. Not long after this he would move to Boston to attend Emerson, then to L.A..

The clip begins backstage, and we’re all goofy and nervous. I’d played clubs with my first band The Latest, but we’d never generated the kind of excitement that was percolating on this night.

Apparently, Dick uploaded this last April. I only just came across it. I envision shelves in his home loaded with VHS (or maybe Beta) tapes. Occasionally he finds time to digitize and upload them, and every once in awhile, a scene from my not-misspent youth pops up on YouTube. These clips always astonish me, brightening the corners of my memory. I really hope he has more (at least I think I do). I recall him being everywhere back then, a huge video camera on his shoulder.

As you can see around 1:20, RuPaul jokes that I’m being “artsy fartsy Athens.” He had my number, that’s for sure. In the early days of the band, I tried to look like I was in R.E.M., while the rest of Wee Wee Pole went for a cross between Prince’s band and Bauhaus, with much attention paid to hair. Towards the end I capitulated, and started wearing a funky hat, which you can see in the video for our local hit “Tarzan.” I’m pretty sure it’s the lowest budget video ever.

The live section in the Nitery clip is our song, “I Gotcha.” The drum machine you hear belonged to Todd’s dad, Jack Butler, who’d had careers as a lounge pianist and writer of piano instruction books. It’s ancient, but distinctive. I retain a vivid memory of looking out during this song and seeing people dancing for the first time to music I was helping make. I was elated. Towards the end of the clip, Ru is backstage, changing costumes into “something sexy” so can re-emerge to sing “Love Hangover,” our one cover. I hope Dick or someone has footage of this. It was a show stopper.

If you want to read more about Wee Wee Pole and see more video, click HERE and HERE. We never released a record, sadly, but Ru used our 8-track demos as the B-side of his 1985 EP Sex Freak, which you you can buy on vinyl for $40.00 here.

You can read about Todd and me HERE.

Thanks again, Dick Richardson and James Bond, for the fun, albeit bittersweet, time travel.

Gammie and RuPaul

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Wee Wee Pole, 1983. From left: David Klimchak, RBW, Todd Butler, RuPaul

In 1983, I was a teenage bass player in a funky Atlanta band called Wee Wee Pole. Our lead singer was a magnetic, six foot four, black, gay man named RuPaul. Ru would go on to international fame as a drag queen, singer, and TV star, but in the early 80s he was running with the scrappy “new wave queer underworld.” These were my people, a group thick with gender bending children of absentee parents. I’d fallen in with them around the time I started shaving. Many, like me, were the spawn of exhausted, former flower child single moms. Because of a laissez faire “trust in the universe,” these moms often let their kids twist in the wind. The only adult keeping tabs on me was my maternal grandmother, Gammie, a southern belle in her 70s.

 Wee Wee Pole was popular, due in part to RuPaul’s tireless self-promotion, which included wheat-pasting provocative flyers everywhere, in neighborhoods both sketchy, like his own, and respectable, like Gammie’s. The posters always featured a Xeroxed image of a near-naked RuPaul, and his name in boldface. On a leisurely walk down her dogwood-lined street, Gammie encountered this image on a telephone pole: Ru in a loincloth, a feather boa wired into his Mohawk, his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.

 I’d told my grandmother I was in a band with a guy named RuPaul (“Tell me about your new band!” she’d asked, always interested). I’d omitted crucial details, however, and she’d not seen Ru until that day. I was, as usual, home alone when she called and curtly asked me to come over. I figured she needed help with my Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather, but upon turning onto her street in my VW Bug, I saw the “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul!” poster. My heart sank.

 Gammie and I were close. My dad had been dead eleven years, killed when he drunkenly drove at high speed into an embankment, and my mom was often otherwise engaged, so Gammie had co-parented me for over a decade. She nurtured my rock star ambitions. Showbiz, in fact, was part of her life; my grandfather, Sam Lucchese, was the retired entertainment editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and had been the publicist for Gone With the Wind. Gammie had tagged along on junkets, and, judging from the photos and frequent stories, she loved glamour. Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood, and Jimmy Stewart, seated with my beaming grandparents, smiled down from framed 8 x 10s on the walls of Gammie’s house.

 In thrift store regalia and a sloppy new wave haircut, I walked in, my hands sweating. I found Gammie in the den, where I’d eaten many meals from an indestructible TV tray as I watched All in the Family with my grandparents. Gammie, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, cheered Archie Bunker’s bigotry, and I knew I was due for an earful regarding RuPaul.

 “Sit down,” she said, unusually terse. I did so, across from her Civil War library, which included The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis. She loomed over me in a faded housecoat. My grandfather mumbled incoherently in the next room.

 “Robert,” she said, drawing a deep breath and clasping her hands, “I know you are going to think I am just a crazy old lady who doesn’t know things. But I do. You listen to your Gammie. Robert, you… are a type.”

 “A type?”

 “You are a type that… an older… homosexual man… would want to… lead… astray.”

 The clarity of the moment stunned me. This was how she saw me? I babbled denial, to no avail. Little did she know I was en route to my latchkey girlfriend’s, where, quite frankly, hetero sex would ensue. I wanted to blurt this out, but didn’t dare. I sat mute while she leaned into her fantasy.

 “Your grandfather and I know… gays,” she said. “We met all kinds of people in show business. I know how it is. I’ve seen it, and I want you to know what I see with you and your… band. You are naïve, you need to know that. No one else is going to tell you this.”

 I protested feebly, and she finally let me go, her lined face clouded with doubt, her hug harder and longer than usual. As always, she said she loved me. But I was embarrassed for both of us. Wee Wee Pole would not last, and much of my teenagerdom would fade with time, but this intense episode stayed with me. It was the only time Gammie and I discussed anything sexual.

 Fast-forward a decade. I’m living in Manhattan, and, to Gammie’s delight, I’ve married a North Carolina woman. When RuPaul appears on Arsenio, my grandmother, pushing 90, calls to make sure I’ve seen this career-making performance-and-interview. I tell her I have, and I’m happy for my old bandmate. She says she imagined I would be. I hear her smile down the line, and I smile back. Our long-ago conversation has morphed from cringe-worthy memory to a reminder of when she, alone, was looking out for me. Even when it was unnecessary, Gammie had shown up. She wants me to remember it like that, and I do.

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Jack, RBW, Gammie, on Gammie’s Etowah marble bench in Atlanta, 1999