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.
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…