Tag Archives: Pyramid Club

In With the Out Crowd: Remembering My 80s Youth

“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell

kingtuts

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (latter day)

The SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states got me thinking about the so-called “queer” people who shaped my 80s youth. To my amazement, the memories posses an unexpected clarity, and I find myself welling up with happiness for people I have not seen in two decades, friends whose faces dance as if on a shimmery VHS tape whirring in my mind.

Many who shepherded me through some crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.

It took a village, indeed. An East Village. 

~

Like most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk, and I’m glad. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope, heading north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them, usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank, than I ever learned in any classroom.

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”

In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions, and for the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.

These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave and it would make them fight back.

Of course I see now that we were in a bubble, but at the time, it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.

~

Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.

Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.

I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.

With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.

NYE

Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.

It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn, adventuring with the Wah Wah Hut crew, breaking into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, watching many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last park in Manhattan with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.

Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.

As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.

There was so much love. In our little enclave, some of us at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, we were loathe to leave the love we knew in our East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.

This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.

When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now seventeen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.

At age 50, my short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory, apparently, is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there as I became me. They helped. They emboldened me.

With the step forward that is the SCOTUS decision, my old friends who remain on this earthy plane who are gay, or LGBTQ, or whatever, have much to celebrate. That means anyone who loves them – that would be me – also has a lot to celebrate. And at this stage of the game, celebrating a good day is crucial. Not all days are good, that’s for damn sure, but even after everything, some definitely are.

~

(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)

Me & RuPaul

RuPaul and me, ca. 1983

By Robert Burke Warren

Before I met RuPaul Andre Charles, I saw him do a stand-up routine on amateur night at an Atlanta comedy club in 1982. I was seventeen. A twenty-two-year-old RuPaul came out in pasted-on tassels and glitter. In front of an unsuspecting congregation of white frat guys and their feather-haired dates, he gestured to his get-up and squealed, “You like my outfit? Well… this is the front…” then, after a dainty spin, he added, “and this is the back!” It didn’t go over well. I recall feeling pity and fear that he’d soon be gay-bashed in the parking lot.

Almost two decades later I would see him do this same bit on his own national TV show, and it would kill.

A year or so after that night, I was forming a band with my best friend, guitarist Todd Butler. Todd had come into his own at the local art house theater portraying Riff Raff in the live floorshow of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I’d been playing bass in a punky pop band.

Through Rocky Horror, Todd had gained access to the new wave queer underworld of Atlanta, and had fallen in love with trash-funk band the Now Explosion and their back-up singers/go-go dancers RuPaul and the U-hauls.

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

One day Ru took the bus to Todd’s house, but unlike the cringe-worthy “comic” I’d seen, this RuPaul was charming and magnetic. The three of us fired up an ancient drum machine from the 60s and christened ourselves Wee Wee Pole – “like something a little kid would say.” In short order we appeared on public access and booked our first gig – opening for the Now Explosion at a seedy downtown club. We tore the roof off the place.

Within months we added percussionist David Klimchak – the only “functioning adult” in the band – made a three-song demo, and began gigging regularly. One memorable night we played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and RuPaul dared to voice what everyone was thinking, screaming from the stage, “Where’s MICHAEL STIPE? He’s so CUTE! I just love him!” Sadly, or perhaps not, Stipe was on the road.

Inevitably, we fell out with Todd’s mother, Betty Butler. Initially, she’d tolerated our rehearsing in the front room of their house; we’d spend after-school afternoons concocting a Prince-and-Blowfly-inspired new-wave-y funk repertoire, our sweaty sessions often overlapping with her coming in the door around 6, exhausted from working all day at the Shriner’s Temple. Despite – or perhaps because of – Mrs. Butler’s devout Christian beliefs, she accepted Ru’s screamingly obvious gayness, never even addressing the non-issue. As an added delight, the Butler family had a bursting, starch-sugar-carbonated-deep-fried-Twinkie-fied dream of a kitchen, which we were allowed to raid, no questions asked. One day, however, she overheard the lyrics (that I wrote) to a song called “Get Sexy” (“Perfume on yo’ cleavage, perfume on yo’ toes/Perfume on yo’ privacy, where everybody wants to go!”) and Mrs. Butler evicted us. We had officially tried the patience of a saint.

Regardless of minor setbacks, RuPaul went into promo overdrive. He Xeroxed fanzines about himself and wheat-pasted Wee Wee Pole gig posters all over Atlanta. One featuring a photo of him clad only in a loincloth was stuck on my grandmother Gammie’s street in a conservative Atlanta neighborhood. She was not pleased. (It would be years before I would convince her I was not being “recruited by the gays.”) It all paid off; soon our local hit “Tarzan” was getting airplay on Georgia State’s WRAS, we were opening for national acts, and headlining clubs.

RuPaul didn’t do much full drag in the early 80s. It’s expensive, for one thing, and he was dirt poor. He was an impressively inventive thrift store cross-dresser. I recall a feather boa wired into his short Mohawk, an oversize diaper, football shoulder pads affixed to his shirtless torso, and a pair of size 13 fisherman’s waders worn with hot pants.

On the downside, RuPaul could get pretty drunk and cavort sloppily onstage with drag queens while Todd, David and I vamped interminably on “Love Hangover.” I had no patience for that and I made sure everyone knew it. How I wish I had tapes of our band meetings from that time, just to hear things like: “Ru, you cannot invite Ty-D-Bowl on the stage with you, he ruins everything.”

The tech department at my alma mater Northside School of the Performing Arts had brand new video equipment and they were eager to do a live shoot with an audience of students. I volunteered Wee Wee Pole, worried yet thrilled at the risk. Ru did not hold back one iota – parading amongst the teens and dumbstruck teachers in one of his trash-glam ensembles, cutting loose with some over-the-top moves and cries of faux ecstasy, exhorting the spellbound kids with “EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!” I retain hope of this performance giving courage to some secret misfit kids.

I sent our demo tape to New York City, and from my grandmother’s kitchen I booked a Thursday night at the Pyramid Club and a Friday at Danceteria opening for Gene Loves Jezebel. Our fellow Atlanta scenesters took it upon themselves to warn us about “New York audiences,” clucking that the folks up there wouldn’t clap and perhaps might even boo, and not to take it personally.

We made the trip from Atlanta to New York City in one twenty-hour shot of continuous driving, done mostly by Ru, who once had earned money as a drive-away car guy and loved the open road, especially after he’d smoked a joint. It was late fall of ’83, I was eighteen, and the gigs we would play would be my last with the band. Athens, Georgia was calling like a siren.

Since R.E.M. had started their precipitous climb, the stock of the sleepy little college town had risen, and I was enthralled from 65 miles away in Atlanta, where I’d spent my whole life. Invited by well-established musician Vic Varney to start a new Athens band, I was drawn to the presumed depth and artiness of the scene.

(more about this episode HERE)

In spite of Wee Wee Pole’s success, I’d grown frustrated; I told myself we were destined only to do songs about sex, partying and fun, as if that was a terrible fate. I decided this was a bash I wanted to leave early, and a New York tour was a perfect swan song. But I told no one.

Wee Wee Pole arrived in Manhattan on a cold autumn evening. We crashed on the Chelsea apartment floor of Dan, an old buddy of my girlfriend’s mother. A former male-model-turned-professional-waiter, Dan was prone to walking around his apartment completely naked, which seemed fine at the time and caused no incident. In fact, his shower was in his kitchen, so there was no way around it. None of us took showers.

The next night we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Within moments of our first song, it was clear that the sizable Thursday night crowd loved us. With applause still ringing in our ears, we stumbled into the post-midnight chill deliriously happy, relieved, and nowhere near tired. Ru had begun some celebratory drinking and although Todd, David and I didn’t drink, take drugs or smoke pot, we all got caught up in his elation. Our good friend Margie Thorpe suggested the Staten Island Ferry as a cheap, touristy adventure. Excellent idea! The early morning hours found us heading towards the water, the band and Margie all packed into the van, laughing, giddy, afraid of nothing.

We parked on the ferry and found seats upstairs. The fluorescent lights and sad, dingy colors of the boat could not suppress RuPaul’s drunken gaiety. He ran full-tilt from bow to stern, getting right in the faces of the taciturn late-night commuters, crowing “JESUS LOVES YOU! YOU ARE SO GORGEOUS! WHO WANTS GUM? I DO, I DO!” Todd, David and I were still buzzing from the gig, and Margie was beaming so proud, we took no notice of some sneering Mean Streets-looking toughs who growled, “You gotta wake up to reality, man… wake up to reality!” FUCK THAT.

It wasn’t until we landed on Staten Island and went to retrieve the van that we noticed our tires had been slashed. We drove our crippled vehicle onto the Island, temporarily marooned. Ru’s high came crashing down and he moped and dozed in the front seat while we cuddled in the back. (Thank God for Klimchak’s credit card and for his wisdom to pay a little extra for insurance. He is the hero of our little tour.) As we awaited delivery of a new rental, the sun rose, our adrenaline dipped, and silence set in. In my memory, this was all part of the fun, an element of the adventure, but at the time I’m pretty sure it was a bummer. Except for the cuddling.

We slept at Dan’s most of the day and awoke in time to go play our Danceteria gig. I have no memories of eating. We kicked ass, and once again RuPaul had the crowd by the balls – in a good way. It was another triumphant night and I daresay we blew Gene Loves Jezebel off the stage. The next day we would retrieve our hapless new van – which had been towed – from a carbon-monoxide drenched garage and hit the road for home, satisfied and eager to relay news of our conquest.

Within weeks I quit. No one was surprised – my dissatisfaction with the band was no secret and there had been friction, complete with morning-after recriminations and apologies for missed cues and drunken lewdness. But if RuPaul ever bore me any ill will, I certainly never felt it.

The three songs Wee Wee Pole recorded ended up as side B of Ru’s first album Sex Freak, which you can find online for 50 bucks at Discogs. And/or you can enjoy these video versions from YouTube:

In My Neighborhood

Tarzan

and a live version of Body Heat, which was banned from Atlanta radio due to faux orgasms.

Ru and I would cross paths several times over the next couple of decades. After spending most of 1984 playing in Athens band Go Van Go, wanderlust overtook me again. I pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen. In the 17 years I lived there, Ru would be a sometime-New Yorker and I was called in to play guitar and bass on his LP RuPaul Is Starbooty. We had a ball. The album is crazy expensive on collectors’ sites, but you can enjoy the track “The Mack,” featuring my fuzzed-out guitar, in this video:

After getting sober and hooking up with ace management in the early 90s, Ru’s star really began to rise. At that time, I ran into him on lower Broadway and he had a whole agenda laid out – hit single, TV show, book, movies. Within a few years, it all happened. And when my elderly Gammie called to tell me she’d seen his career-ma king spot on Arsenio – “I saw that RuPaul on the TV!” – it seemed a part of the natural order of things. RuPaul was a “Superstar In Exile” no more.

The last time I saw RuPaul in the flesh was during my late-90s years as a Manhattanite stay-at-home dad. I was carrying my toddler son Jack through the East Village in a backpack and there was Ru, dressed in a sharp suit, passing unrecognized through my neighborhood. He had all the time in the world for us. He’d had his hit single “Supermodel,” his talk show, and various roles in Hollywood movies, and at that time he was a popular morning DJ on WKTU FM New York, splitting his time between Manhattan and L.A. His freckled face beamed goodwill and happiness for me, and he expressed empathic joy for my new life as a parent, and even hope that one day he might be able to take on that particular challenge.

It would not surprise me in the least if he did.

More about Todd’s and my musical adventures HERE