Back in October, I was asked to be a part of a group performance art piece, an interpretation of John Cage’s Variations III. We were given a sheet of transparent plastic with 42 circles on it. Our task was to cut out each circle, take a 11 X 8.5 inch sheet of paper, drop the circles onto the white paper, clear any circles that landed outside of the paper and also any circle that wasn’t overlapping with another circle. Then we took a photo of our “circle configuration.” Mine looked like this:
We were then supposed to distill this pattern into a “score” that would span 2 hours (including 5 minute breaks for every “event.” According to the directions, “Starting with any circle, observe the number of circles which overlap it. Make an action or actions having the corresponding number of interpenetrating variables (1+n). This done, move on to any one of the overlapping circles, again observing the number of interpenetrations, performing a suitable action or actions, and so on. Some or all of one’s obligation may be performed through ambient circumstances (environmental changes) by simply noticing or responding to them. Though no means are given for the measurement of time or space … or the specific interpretation of circles, such measurement and determination means are not necessarily excluded from the ‘interpenetrating variables.’ Some factors though not all of a given interpenetration or succession of several may be planned in advance, but leave room for the use of unforseen eventualities. Any other activities are going on at the same time.”
So, in less dense terms, 24 performers were given a space of roughly 4 feet by 6 feet, all in one big room. And we could do any activity we chose, for a length of two hours, off and on, as was guided by our circle permutation. So, basically, I had 9 circles which meant 9 events, and I tried to have each overlap “dictate” how each of the 9 events was structured. The performance was on December 1st.
I decided mine would be about doing drag. There was really nothing else that made sense. Drag has been the only form of performance art I’ve done, and I was excited to, in a way, deconstruct and leave up to chance, the way it played out.
I brought an alarm clock radio with a tape player, 100 cassettes tapes all in a display case, 9 wigs & hats, 4 skirts, 2 pants, one dress, a bunch of shirts and coats and belts and cumberbunds, 4 shoes & boots, a makeup bag, 4 “microphones,” a mirror, a blow dryer, and a hair buzzer. I think I was the performer with the most “stuff,” and over the course of 2 hours, I proceeded to make a mess of all of it, within my space. This was reminiscent of any time I would do drag. After a show, my room would be a disaster of dress-up options.
So, for each of the 9 events, I threw “circles,” onto the ground (including cds, tokens, bracelets, and mason jar rings). I then pretended to have these circle formations dictate what I wore and what tape I played. In a vague sense. It all did work out in the end – I had 9 different outfits and 9 different songs, all chosen at random. Some of those included REM – Drive, XTC – Summer’s Cauldron, Tears for Fears – Shout, and Kate Bush – Jig of Life. I didn’t know these songs by heart, so I just pretended to lip-synch. Due to the cacophony in the room though, I was the only one who could hear the clock radio anyway – I had to hold it right next to my ear!
Other peoples’ actions included baking things, bicycling, playing instruments, creating play-dough art, playing video games, reading aloud, dancing, and much more! Observers just walked among us. It was unclear whether they were supposed to engage with us or not. One guy did come up to me and ask if he could talk to me. I said, “Sure.” He said he thought earlier I had silver lipstick on and now I don’t, so what happened? I said, “Oh, that lipstick was so old it didn’t go on right. It was all clumpy. So during one of my breaks, I went to the bathroom to take it off.” “Was that part of what was supposed to happen?” “No!” And we both laughed. He asked more questions about why did you do this, why not this?
Afterward I talked to a handful of acquaintances – it felt good to be social. That guy came back up to me and said, “You know, when you put on the lipstick, you really had me convinced.” “Convinced of what? That it looked bad?” “No, that you were a woman.” “Oh, whoa, OK, so, I’m a little bit of both. As is all this stuff.” I gestured to all my clothes and junk, still strewn about. My two friends I was talking to backed me up, which felt awesome.
I think ultimately, I was going for that response, for people to be confused about what genders I was playing out or not playing out. So even though his forwardness made me uncomfortable in the moment, it was an important element, or “takeaway,” from the night.
First off, happy Trans Day of Visibility to you!
It’s been a long time since I’ve done any sort of performing. I felt compelled to do something for a DJ’s birthday bash at a bar, because I thought it’d be low key and fun. And because I had a good idea. And because this is a group of acquaintances I’d like to get to know better. And also I had been asked about a month ago by someone in this group, and I declined at the time, but it got me thinking.
So this was last night – it consisted of 2 DJs, one other performer and then me, and an MC kind of trying to get people to play ridiculous games for a little while, and then another DJ.
My plan was to get the birthday gal situated in a chair, have a birthday song play as I come out with so many layers on (including a motorcycle helmet with a party hat on top) that she has no idea who it is, pass out birthday hats and those tootle things, get people involved in a chaotic way, and then for this song, “Strip” to play, by Adam Ant, and just start taking off all the coats and other clothes I’m wearing. Not to the point where I’m down to underwear or less, haha, please! My “base layer” was a vest, bow tie, pirate pants, and socks. Plus full on Adam Ant make-up, which was one of the best parts about it!
My drag name is Adam Andro-matic. It’s derived from Adam Ant, but, after all this time, I had never once portrayed him! Not sure why! One of the first CDs I bought with my own money, as a youth, from Media Play, was the best of Adam Ant. I know almost all those hits and non-hits by heart. As I planned out this performance, I really embraced it / him. “Strip” is such a ridiculous song. The video is even more so, I just learned! But it’s also just purely joyous, which is something I’d never gotten from it, in the past.
Last night, also, was just purely joyous. I didn’t have any pre-performance jitters or anxieties. Generally, my anxieties around performing manifest themselves by being too much of a perfectionist and obsessively timing things out. This time, not at all! I just went in there, hung out, got ready, did my thing, and then stayed in costume for the rest of the night, talking to people I’d never talked to before, getting trapped into dancing with some drunk people who seemed to really want to dance with me, etc. The birthday gal really really loved the striptease / lap-dance, and so did her boyfriend! She hugged me a bunch of times and kissed my cheek. This may have been the most fun I’ve ever had, during a night I was performing. All the stress was out of the equation. So was the extreme elation / relief when it was over, but I’ll take the straight up fun over all that intensity!
The MC introduced me as Adam Andromeda. Haha. I’ll have to think on that!
Oh, and also, later in the night, I was dancing to a favorite song – “Revenge” by Ministry, when a woman I’d never seen before came up to me. She said, “Will you come with me for a minute?” I followed her without hesitation, and she presented her boyfriend to me. I knew this guy! I’m not great with faces, but I narrowed it down to it being 2 possible people… We shook hands. He said, “Do you know me?” I said, “You work at [the food co-op].” He shook his head, no. “You work at [school],” I said next, and he affirmed that. I see him almost every day, at the YMCA after school program where I work. His girlfriend asked me, “Is he good with the kids? Do the kids love him?” I just nodded slowly, because the answer is, “No,” from what I can observe, but she seemed to want to hear good things, haha. He said he was buying me a drink. I was pretty much done drinking by then, but I thought it’d be nicer to accept. I said, sure, a PBR. A couple of minutes later, he handed me TWO PBRs. I shook my head and kept saying, “no, just one!” But he kinda forced them, nicely, at me. I took them both, drank half of one of them, and put them up on a piano, for safe-keeping. Really the only reason I would waste beer – so that I can get home safely!
Also, I saw my neighbor on the dance floor. This tiny, older woman who is ALWAYS out at clubs and bars, dancing and not drinking. She just seems so mild mannered!
I stayed out till closing time. Things had gotten really chaotic on the dance floor. It was interesting to observe, dip my toes into… When I got home I got ready to take a shower / get all the make-up off my face. I noticed I had a kiss mark, from the birthday gal, on my cheek. Haha.
Prince was sort of an unlikely artist for me to try to emulate. I usually gravitated toward the detached, spaced out robot/alien type vibe – people like Gary Numan and Ian Curtis and Peter Murphy and David Bowie. Prince is sex, right? And, I never felt like I could pull that off. (Also, of course, he’s African American, and I’m not.) Lots of drag kings (or at least the ones I saw) exuded an overtly macho, hyper-sexualized persona. Off stage, they were laid back, just hanging out and smoking on the back patio. I just kept to myself for the most part, feeling too nervous to interact, eating pop-tarts and re-writing lyrics back stage. Incorporating jerky movements into every performance. Falling back on hacky-sack or yo-yo onstage to make things more interesting.
Years later, I was no longer performing at a gay bar – I was doing monthly shows at a community space. It was freeing and also draining. I also did occasional shows elsewhere, like a David Bowie Tribute Night at a bar that’s mainly a music venue. Someone was organizing a Tribute 2 Prince at this same bar, and I think he’d seen my David Bowie performance and thought I’d fit in well with bands doing Prince covers. I immediately agreed and started getting excited. It’s like, I would have never taken on Prince of my own volition, but when someone suggested I do it, I was game.
I probably had about 2 months to get ready, and I really took it to heart – I put a bunch of Prince songs on my iPod and listened every day at work, narrowing down good ideas, learning lyrics, just getting a sense of the breadth of his many types of music. I danced and lip-synched in front of the mirror in the bathroom at work. I started to cull songs that would work well as a medley, and also, separately, I started to have some ideas for the song, “Diamonds and Pearls.” It’s a duet (with New Power Generation member Rosie Gaines), and I had to see if I could enlist my drag king buddy to do it with me. She said sure; we did lots of practicing at her house. (We also did a photo shoot.)
I remember that I scoured thrift stores for cheap diamonds and pearls to no avail. Then, the weekend before the show, my spouse and I were in Philadelphia visiting friends and attending the Philly Trans-Health Conference. We stayed out late one night, so late that we missed our chance to take the subway back to their apartment. We had to get a cab. This is maybe one of 3 or 4 times I’ve ever been in a cab. Our friends said at a certain point, “this is fine, just drop us off here.” We opened the door, and right there, out on the curb with a bunch of junk, was a tangle of a bunch of diamond and pearl necklaces. For real. Right there. I still have them.
Around this time (this was late spring/early summer of 2012), I was sort of questioning/re-exploring my sexuality, and talking about it a lot in therapy. It kind of helped things, to throw myself into emulating Prince, at the time. After the performance, I wrote this to my therapist (amongst a lot more words, haha), “so this was by far the sexiest performance I’ve ever done, and some people were responding to that (I got gyrated on in the bathroom, some people were touching me) yet it does not translate to me feeling like I am a sexual person. It’s just a role.”
Even so, I had a blast! I did 2 sets – the medley I edited, which was “Uptown/When Doves Cry/Gett Off/D.M.S.R.,” and then “Diamonds and Pearls.” It was so fun performing with my drag buddy again, and we totally nailed it. The place was packed, and a lot of people approached me afterward to talk to me / say how much they liked it. I was Prince.
David Bowie was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to become a drag king. He was the epitome of androgyny amongst the famous, and I wanted to emulate him. Whenever I did drag, I tried to capture the look of the singer, something that not all drag kings take the time to do. And since I was leaning toward music of the late seventies and eighties, flamboyancy was big – eyeliner and eye-shadow, lip-liner and lipstick. Clothing found in the women’s section of thrift stores, tight pants, boots with heels…
I just went back to an old email chain between my drag buddy and me, prior to my first performance, when we were bouncing ideas off of each other. I’m sure that I talked about all the gender variant singers I wanted to channel, especially David Bowie. For some reason though, my side of the email correspondence is all blank. 😦 (Otherwise I would have cut and pasted what I wrote, ten years ago.) I hope my drag partner might still have these emails. That’s disheartening that I might have lost that… (This same friend’s first 7″ record was Blue Jean.)
I definitely did David Bowie songs more than any other musician, over the years. Here is a list as best as I can remember, in chronological order:
– Ziggy Stardust (a Bauhaus cover)
– Space Oddity
– Rebel Rebel
– Breaking Glass
– Space Oddity again
– A Ziggy Stardust medley
– The Man Who Sold the World
– Let’s Dance
The first time I was asked to do drag out of context (not at a drag show), was for a David Bowie tribute night, for his birthday. I can’t remember how I got connected to that – I think through a friend. I was super psyched to have been asked. This was a show of local bands doing covers, and I was performing to a crowd that was made up of people who perhaps had never been to a drag show. It was at a bar I always had wanted to perform at – a bar that definitely does not put on drag shows. I did David Bowie as a glam rocker, and David Bowie as a mime. (He was a member of the Lindsay Kemp Mime Company in 1967.)
A different organizer put on the tribute show the next year, and it was at an even more mainstream bar, with even more out-there musicians doing covers. I did David Bowie as a glam rocker, and David Bowie in a dress. The idea to do that came from the cover of his The Man Who Sold the World record. I was mixing things up, wearing Aladdin Sane inspired make-up (see photo – I applied this make-up in the mirror before realizing it was the reverse!). Interestingly, I felt very self-conscious wearing that dress – I didn’t feel like people were going to accept that, even though it was just a costume, and David Bowie definitely would have / could have flaunted it… That performance felt stilted because of my discomfort in the dress, I think – not because of my thoughts that it didn’t do David Bowie justice.
Yesterday, after hearing the news of his death, a friend posted on my facebook wall that she thought of me when she heard the news. I made this Aladdin Sane picture my profile pic, and many other friends commented that they thought of me. I had no idea we were so connected in the minds of the people I know! That feels good! My mom even sent me an email that just said, “My condolences for your loss. David Bowie, I mean.”
I have a radio show now, and I think I’ll play all Bowie songs on the next show – play some covers, play some of my fave songs of his over the many decades he was actively making music – right up till his death. (I have yet to hear his new album…)
David Bowie, I will miss you being in this world and out of this world…
This is a 2 fer 1 blog post! Join me for these two ongoing series. The point at which these topics collide is: Kurt Cobain. No, Kurt Cobain was not a drag king, but he was a janitor. And when I started doing drag, one of my earliest ideas was to portray him as a janitor, singing / screaming into a dust-mop handle like it’s a microphone. (And also using the handle as a pole vault to propel myself off of the stage, super dramatic-like.)
I went back to his journals in order to glean some details from his janitorial career. He dropped out of high school 2 weeks before graduation, turned right back around, and worked as a janitor at his old school. He also later worked at Polynesian Condominium Hotel Resort, and for Lemons Janitorial.
On page 43 of his journals, he drew up a mock flyer for a janitorial business he apparently was dreaming up with Chris Novoselic (bass player) called Pine Tree Janitorial Service: Basic Commercial Maintenance. He claims, “We purposely limit our number of commercial offices in order to personally clean while taking our time. We guarantee $50.00 lower rates than your present janitorial service. You see, other services usually have too many buildings assigned to the individual’s route. So in turn they end up running thru buildings trying for time. But at Pine Tree ——” The page ends there and so does the thought process. His band was really starting to take off anyway by then, haha. Most of the journals are devoted to band-related thoughts (and thoughts about drugs, guilt, politics, fame, etc.), not janitorial dreams.
On page 160, he’s starting to plan out the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He wrote out a list:
1. mercedes benz and a few old cars
2. access to an abandoned mall, main floor and one jewelry shop.
3. lots of fake jewelry
4. School Auditorium (Gym)
5. A cast of hundreds. 1 custodian, students.
6. 6 black cheerleader outfits with Anarchy A’s on chest”
Not sure what became of the old cars (gold mercedes benz?), mall scene, and fake jewelry, but the gymnasium scene, cheerleaders, and custodian ideas did come to fruition.
The cheerleaders are wearing black uniforms with anarchy symbols on them. The custodian plays a much more prominent role in the video than he would at an actual school. He is rocking out with his mop handle – in multiple cut-away shots. Great music video moments!
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of my performances doing Nirvana songs, as a janitor. But I remember some details! The two songs I did (at two separate times) were “Aneurysm” and “Sliver.” My hair, at the time was bleached blonde, and I pulled it in front of my face in stringy clumps. I wore work boots, navy blue Dickies pants with a lot of keys hanging off the belt loop, a light blue work shirt – not tucked in- with epaulets, and a thermal shirt underneath that. I brought a dust mop to dust mop the stage / use as microphone stand and pole vault. Once off the stage, I continued dust mopping all throughout the audience. I don’t know whether anyone got into these performances or knew what I was doing, but it felt pretty cathartic.
Just like Kurt Cobain, I worked at my old high school – er, technically it was my middle school, but it is now a high school (although unlike Kurt, I managed to graduate first, and to also graduate from college before returning). It was weird. Maybe I’ll write about it more in depth at a later date. I also have rocked out with mops many many times, just like the janitor in the video (often, I’d be narrowing down drag songs, listening to my mp3 player and lip synching into the mirror in the bathrooms). I’m actually currently doing this while at work! I have a Halloween drag show coming up and I’m trying to decide between Bauhaus, Skinny Puppy, Swans, and a few others.
I’d like to think that Kurt Cobain wrote some of what’s in his journals while he was working as a janitor. Although I don’t write in a journal, I do have a little notebook on my cart where I write out lists and jot down thoughts about music, mostly. I also often utilize the time to think about stuff I might write about here, on this blog.
If you’re interested in what else I’ve written for these series so far, here they are:
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I could portray Bob Dylan, as he were in Subterranean Homesick Blues. (My initial plan for “Drag King Stories” was to be chronological; obviously I’m not following that because I’m now jumping to the most recent story I have on the topic!) The friend had been invited by the local Improvement Society to give a power-point presentation at a literary/cultural hub, just up the street from me. He was going to be one of 11 people, doing flash-presentations to highlight what’s new!
His project: He is the mastermind behind a new radio station that will be hitting the airwaves by October. It’ll be run by and for the community; all funds will be raised by community efforts (as opposed to commercial, although there might be underwriters and/or sponsorship members).
So when he approached me, he said that each group presents 20 slides and a representative talks along with the images, which are on an auto-timer of 20 seconds each, for a total 6minute, 40 second presentation (per group). And the audience sits and watches each presentation, one after the other. He told me he’d already gotten permission to stray from the rules and just not use power-point or slides at all. To instead go totally lo-fi, using poster-board with words sharpied in black. Just my style!
In the past, any opportunity to be in drag and perform outside of a typical drag show format has been a total blast, and so I jumped on the chance. My friend and I hung out in his attic the Sunday before the event, listening to music, practicing, and drawing out the words with sharpie markers. He had written out a script, telling the story of the radio station thus far. I assumed a wide stance and stony expression, just like Mr. Bob Dylan. We decided in advance that I was going to have an attitude. I was just going to drop each poster onto the floor and then at the end of our 6:40, I would throw the last poster up into the air and walk off, leaving others to pick them all up.
We arrived early, and I was excited to find out we were on first. Love getting a performance out of the way and then kicking back! The audience was a bunch of young entrepreneurs / hipsters / yuppies / intellectuals. Haha. We got up there, did our thing, I walked off, and then we watched everyone else. There was an intermission with cucumber sandwiches, meats and cheeses, and tiny fingerling potatoes(?), and beer. This was, ultimately, a networking event, but I dislike that stuff, so I let my friend do the talking, and my partner and I grabbed food and beer and went to explore the building a little bit.
After the event, my partner and I went out to a bar to see a different friend’s new band. I felt really solid in my button-up shirt, vest, and sideburns. I should remember to go out “in drag,” just for fun, more often!
Also, if you wanna check out what I wrote in Part 1, it is here!
If you’d have known me in college, you’d know 1) I was fond of saying, “One day I will be a drag king” and 2) I appeared to be one of the least likely candidates ever, for such an endeavor. I was beyond shy. I had very few friends, so it’s not likely you would have know me in college anyway! I avoided people at a lot of costs – never attended parties, found the back entrances and emergency staircases to buildings so as not to walk with the masses, went to dining halls at off times, etc.
But I was mesmerized by the idea. I wanted to personify different artists. I wanted to be seen by others in this specific context, which largely meant being seen as male. Then again, I never danced. I never went to bars, night clubs, drag shows. It was all just a hypothetical idea.
Fast forward a year after graduation. I was living at home with my parents, just starting out in my career as a janitor. I had gone to a drag show once with some friends. I was starting to make friends. The way the drag kings presented themselves was enviable, but also to me, a little uncomfortable. They were so overtly macho and sexual. Wasn’t so sure about that. They were fun to watch, but could I actually do that? Still, I never ever danced, let alone grind up on strangers and gyrate on poles.
I knew of one drag king, a friend of a friend, named Maurice (K). But we had never met. She worked at a local historic theatre, so when I found myself there, with my mom, I decided to ask, does K still work here? The person replied, “I’m K!” I told her that we have a mutual friend, and it’s really cool to meet you and stuff. She said we should hang out; she told me when her next show was.
I went to that dingy dive-of-a-gay-bar; it was my first time there, and I’m sure I arrived early. The floor was black, the bar was black, the walls were black, the tiny stage was black. The only thing that seemed only slightly fabulous was the shimmery silver drapes that lined the wall behind the stage. A mix of techno and hip-hop hits blared way too loudly. A few people milled about in groups. I was there with a friend; we didn’t drink. We stood around awkwardly.
I don’t recall much about the lineup that night, but I can still picture this mysterious potential friend’s performance vividly. Maurice had on a pink blazer and a visor. Everything about him was colorful – his swagger, his movements, his outfit. I’d never heard the song before, but I was instantly in love with it. (I asked him later; it was Japan – The Unconventional. I tracked it down on record soon after, and listened to that whole album over and over and over.)
He was certainly not exuding a macho persona, and he’d tell you he’s not going for sexual overtones (although I’d argue they’re there, unconventionally). I mean, of course! There are so many styles of music from which to draw from. Not just hip-hop, country, and pop punk, which was all I ever saw from anyone else. Maybe I could do this thing, if I just stuck to what I liked, which tended toward effeminate anyway. Glam rock, new wave, post-punk, there were all sorts of things to explore. And somehow, my path let me to find this person who was already doing this thing, his way, and wanted to connect with me about it.
After the show, he asked me, “So have you thought of being a drag king? You wanna be one?” And the rest is history. (By which I mean, there’s more to come.)
David Sylvian, of Japan, looks so very effeminate, in this video, and always. Maurice was, essentially, a woman impersonating a man who looks an awful lot like a woman. It was fantastic.