The B-52s and Me
The B-52s and Me
In which I reminisce about our 30+ year friendship.
In 1989, Charleston, South Carolina, where I was living at the time, was hit by Hurricane Hugo, a harbinger of worse storms to come, but, at the time, one of the worst natural disasters the country had ever seen. I had made my living for years as a painter and photographer, but had changed careers abruptly when I landed the job in Paris as the food editor of a magazine. It was perhaps a good thing that I was making my living in another medium when the storm hit, because I lost nearly all of my negatives and slides, most of my drawings, and several of my journals as well. The photos I do have have for the most part been reproduced here from slides taken of prints. Most of my prints were one-of-a-kind.I mention this because normally I write these memoirs with hundreds of my own photos at my disposal to jar my memory. Hugo had taken most of my images and many of my notes as well. Fortunately, when I opened my culinary bookstore in the late 80s, I had sent most of my negatives of photos of the B-52s
to them for their archives. I had taken some of the first photos of the band. Even when I was living in Athens in the late 70s when the band was first performing, I would see my photos on t-shirts and posters here and there. I always wondered how someone had gotten them. But I never cared. We were all so excited about some music that we could dance to while laughing – without disco banality – that we were always thrilled with theirs – and anyone’s, for that matter – success.
I was visiting Bill Foy in Atlanta in 1976, and he had a tape that Fred Schneider had given him of some songs that he, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson, and Cindy and Ricky Wilson had just recorded. I knew Keith and Ricky and Fred pretty well at that point. I had first met Keith in Athens at a Bruce Hampton concert at Memorial Hall on Halloween in 1970, my senior year at the University of Georgia. He was an impossibly pretty boy, and he was wearing a purplish wig that stuck out from his head like the hair on those little troll dolls from the 60s, thus predating Darryl Hannah’s look in Blade Runner
by 12 years. He and Maureen McLaughlin and I pretty much took over the dance floor that night. Back in Athens for graduate school, in 1974 I had lived in a big half-timbered Tudor style mansion with David Thompson (in the photo, below) and John Hoard, Maureen (who later managed the band for awhile), Bob Tallini, and Keith Spikes (who was the first person I ever heard use the term “B-52” to mean a big hairdo). We called the house “The Crystal Palace.” I cooked supper instead of paying rent. We had a huge vegetable garden out back.
Keith (Strickland) found this old photobooth shot of him and Kelly Bugden and me, circa ’74.
The dance parties that summer were amazing. At one, in Ellen Bargeron and “Dazzling Deb’s” apartment, the wooden floor bounced up and down at least a foot in each direction as we danced to Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” At another, everyone was asked to bring blue food, which George Carlin had wondered why there was none of on Saturday Night Live
At Christmas that year, I moved to Charleston, but moved back to Georgia in 1976 to complete my Masters. Fred was one of the first people I saw. He gave me a copy of his book of poems, “Bleb,” which included the inspiration for several of the band’s songs.
In February 1977 the Bs first performed in front of an audience at Julia Stimpson and Gray Lippett’s apartment across the street from the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of Prince and Milledge Avenues in Athens. Zeke Addison
, who was working on his MFA in painting, loaned the band his giant Voice of the Theater speakers. Kelly hung a Barbie doll from a chandelier. I had had a t-shirt made at the County Fair, with an awful airbrush painting of a woman with a bouffant hairdo with “B-52” sprawled across the back. I wore it over a cowhide print shirt tucked into white drawstring pants I had bought in the Caribbean somewhere; they were tucked into boots. An atrocious sight.
Everyone was wearing similar makeshift thrift store fashion. Sally Stafford had wildly patterned curtains from the 50s wrapped around her as a skirt. That’s me and Sally and Julia in this photo by Kelly dancing that night at the band’s first gig.In many ways, we were typical twenty-something pot-smoking, beer-drinking college students, though we were mostly involved in the arts: I was majoring in film; Kelly, Julia, Tommy Adams, John Beal, Tekla Torell, Greg Whittington, Keith Bennett, and Betty Alice Fowler
were art majors; Dana Downs
was studying philosophy. In other ways, we were special: curious, well-read, and knowledgeable about painting, film, and contemporary music. We listened to Terry Riley, Yma Sumac, Steve Reich, Captain Beefheart, and Perez Prado, as well as Brian Eno, the Ramones, and Patti Smith. We loved to dance. John Beal went on to do so professionally, performing with both Twyla Tharp and John Kelly. We still loved Booker T and Aretha, but were bored with disco and mainstream film. We watched Pasolini, Truffaut, and, especially Fellini, and we began making our own individual ways in the arts. Dana went on to perform with bands both here and abroad, and regularly exhibits her paintings as well.
(Here she is on assignment for Vanity Fair
, in Randy Travis’s living room!) Nanette Consovoy became a successful painter in Berlin. Angel Dean
has recorded several albums and is now showing her visual art as well. Mike Green studied music at IRCAM in Paris. Betty Alice has curated fascinating museum exhibitions. The decorative work of Julia and her husband Bob Christian is much-sought-after. Kelly has taken the photos for some gorgeous books, including one of mine, and has gone on to do decorative work with his partner Van Wifvat
. Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Briscoe, and Randy Bewley formed the band Pylon
. (Love Tractor and R.E.M. formed after I left town.) Kent Brown
, Greg, Kelly, John, Adele Maddry, Tekla, Tommy, Bob and Julia
, Angel, and Ken Bullock all moved to New York to pursue their dreams. We all kept in touch with homemade postcards, such as the following red image of Betty Alice by Nicky Giannaris and the postcard from Kent, showing him and Bobby Adams (both no longer with us), with the message, “Some people just don’t know the third world. And some people have to shout it out. It’s red.”
The painters in our crowd were incredibly good, at least partially due to the fact that the Art Department at UGA has long been an excellent one, with teachers who are successful practicing artists, such as Jim Herbert and Andy Nasisse
. Two young, exceptionally talented painting students – mere teenagers at the time – were Margaret Katz and Debbie McMahon, whose neo-expressionist work presaged the genre in Germany.
(The portrait of me on the right here was painted by Margaret when she was 19. She didn’t have a photograph to work from and she hadn’t seen me in several months at the time.) In this photo I took of them for their first exhibit, I purposely made them appear androgynous.
We were all influenced by Herbert’s films of dreamlike re-photographed images of nudes in abstract emotional situations and by his bold, oversized canvases covered with huge smears of paint. The black and white image below is a postcard from Herbert, a still from his lovely film, “Silk.”
Several of us were making our way as serious photographers, exploring the then-popular theme of visual bleakness as urban blight tweaked environmental awareness. This 1974 shot of an abandoned supper club in a shopping center in Athens is typical of my work and the work of many other photographers at the time.
Ironically, sensitive photographic portraiture also emerged, I think, simply because we found each other so interesting. Here’s a photo I took of a hirsute Kelly, as well as a postcard from Dana picturing Vic Varney
, Teresa Randolph, and Tekla (with Dana’s blurred reflection in the mirror).
Sometimes I would cut people’s heads off while composing my picture, purposely reducing the image to a more painterly figure-ground study.
Julia painted zaftig, often limbless women in blocks of color fields that resembled Milton Avery’s work. Tommy’s huge canvases stylized our poolside lives, colorful cartoons of Helmut Newton’s models in pink and green. My major professor was Barbara McKenzie, the skillful writer, photographer and potter; Elaine de Kooning (photo, below) headed up my reading committee, along with the painter Bill Marriott.
In the photo below, Marriott and I are contemplating my one-man show in the Art Department’s gallery.
We all painted and photographed each other relentlessly, knowing that we were documenting a very special time in American art. Kelly began taking photographs at the same time he explored abstraction in his paintings (below).
We lived simply, Kate more dramatically so than anyone else. She rented a sharecropper’s cabin 6 miles out of town.
(That’s her driveway in the photo.) She had electricity, but only a wood-burning stove. Her water came in rain barrels placed under her eaves and from a well several hundred feet from the house. She had five female goats that she hand-milked. She would ride her bicycle into town, often bringing me a quart of fresh goats’ milk. Later in the day we would sip big cups of cafe au lait de chevre
, to this day my favored version of the drink. Here’s a photo of Kenny, who was a teenager at the time, at my table during the winter of 78. Note the coffee cup.
But we also lived wildly, seldom conforming to anyone else’s sense of fashion or decorum. We didn’t need Halloween as an excuse to dress up – or down. Skinny dipping was de rigueur
and we’d shed our clothes at the mere hint of a summer rainstorm. “The Deadbeat Club” is for real.
At this party at Teresa’s, B.A., Tekla (in nurse’s uniform, with her back to the camera), and Tommy are in the swing of it. Tommy was especially inventive in his outfits, and would often perform on stage in a woman’s bathing suit and high heels.
A few years later, when I was caring for my dying mother, I took a break and went to Athens to visit Tommy, who had moved back from New York and put himself through detox. He had begun working for a design firm owned by Paula, with whom, he confessed to me, had had fallen madly in love.
They married a couple of years later and moved to Charleston right after Hurricane Hugo, so I got to live in the same town with them and Dana all over again! The photo above is by Kelly. Here’s another shot of Tommy at Bobby Adams’s Jet Age Voodoo party in Atlanta, circa 1976.When I finished my Masters in Film, I got a two-year government grant to be the staff artist at a local wildlife preserve. Kate Pierson and I were among the real nature lovers in the crowd, and we forged our friendship watching birds together. Sandy Creek Nature Center
, where I worked, would have nature-themed poetry readings, and Fred’s “Purple! Purple! Purple!,” which describes the audacious outburst of color the first week of April when escaped wisteria vines explode throughout the South, was always read by popular demand. Here’s an oil pastel of mine (of wisteria) from that time period.
The nature preserve was several miles outside of town at the confluence of two rivers, with a beaver pond. The folks who attended our events were not usually college kids or rock-n-rollers, but upstanding members of the community, quite often older ladies, bankers, and parents of small children who didn’t own televisions (which I never had, either). Tommy and I held a natural cosmetics workshop and we had to turn folks away.
We were ab-fab before the term was coined. (Here’s Dana and John striking a pose for me. Dana was particularly distraught when Elvis died that summer. I found this incredilbe sheared beaver coat with a red fox collar for her at the Potter’s House, a thrift store that was our favorite place to shop. The coat had big art deco buttons. I remember that I paid $2 for it.)
In the evenings, folks would often gather in my kitchen; it became one of several homes that served as the arts community salons. We’d mix daiquiris and sketch each other, plan parties and trips to the nearby mountains or Cumberland Island. Mostly, we laughed, To this day we all still still howl uncontrollably when we’re together. Here’s a group of us a couple of years ago when we met in NYC to see Christo’s “Gates” in Central Park. I can’t remember how many bottles of Champagne we had at lunch in the Met!
After the band’s first gig at Julia’s and Gray’s, the buzz began. Jerry (now Jeremy) Ayers had written the Silva Thin column in Warhol’s Interview
before he returned to Athens, and he had connections in New York. Their debut there was not far behind. A second party in Athens, at the old Jewish country club, where Teresa Randolph was living at the time, saw the band drawing hundreds of curiosity seekers as well as their ever-expanding group of friends and fans. Robert Waldrop had written them some killer lyrics, and Jerry had penned “52 Girls.”
They had just started singing the song, and Kate wrote the lyrics down for me in one of the dozens of ubiquitous sketchbooks that stayed on my kitchen table. Cindy sketched me in crayon in the same book.
The night of the band’s second appearance, John Beal (left), one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen, decided that I was his boyfriend. Before long, I moved in with him, knowing that he was living with Dana, but not knowing that she was his girlfriend at the time. I’ve since come to believe that that’s pretty standard love life in college towns. Athens was becoming very LGBT-friendly. We lost John to AIDS in the 90s, but Dana and I have remained best of friends.Athens, like most college towns, has always been liberal, in spite of its founding fathers’ having purposely placed the university way up in the hinterlands of Georgia in 1785, far away from the bawdy port of Savannah, which was then the capital of the state. UGA has apparently always been a party town, probably because it is isolated and because of its strong fine arts traditions. Until the 70s, those parties more closely resembled frat parties a la Animal House
. As pot replaced beer, and rock replaced beach music, and glam aesthetics entered the everyday vernacular, Athens gatherings became more mind- and gender-bending than keg parties had ever been. Teresa’s house, Vic’s house, and my house became regular party pads. We wore fake fur and drank cocktails. The war was over. Jimmy Carter, a Georgian and a Democrat, was in the White House. As far as we were concerned, times were good.At one point, I think I was the only person who had a job. I was certainly one of few with a phone.
After the band played Max’s in New York, the press began to bubble with interest. In the summer of ’78, the band released their first single. I took it on a vacation to St George’s Island in the Florida panhandle where I was visiting Julia and Bob’s family, and Sally, who is Bob’s first cousin. They didn’t know I had the record, so one day when we were all out on the deck overlooking the ocean, I went inside for a minute and put on Rock Lobster
, which everyone had only heard live. Immediately everyone started dancing and I got this impromptu photo, one of my favorites of all time.
Earlier that year, Sally and I went to New York for the band’s CBGB’s gig, where we met Robert Molnar
, who became Fred’s boyfriend.
They’ve been together 30 years now! Here’s a photo that Dana took of Fred and Robert in Brian Eno’s apartment, above the Mudd Club, in 1979.Maureen was traveling the country as a jury consultant, but she based herself out of my apartment on Boulevard. She had one of the first answering machines any of us had ever seen. To retrieve messages from the road, she would call the house and use a remote that sounded a high note that caused the machine to rewind the tape and play back the messages. Kate, with her 4-octave range and perfect pitch, would call my house, sing the note, and check to see if any of the messages on the machine were for the band. Frank Zappa called one day and I nearly fainted, having long been a fan.I was always cooking supper for the masses, but it was a bit odd because I’m such an omnivore and all of the band members except Cindy were vegetarians. I’d make a skillet of cornbread
and it would be devoured in minutes, drowned in butter and sorghum. Ricky was especially fond of it. Everyone knew that I used a teaspoon of bacon grease in the pan so that I’d get that special crust, but they always ate it anyway. The band got a gig at the local Georgia Theater, and Robert Waldrop and I spent all day hanging neon tubes on stage and suspending them in the air. Kelly and I had been collecting the neon from abandoned burger joints and ice cream shops for several years.
Dana (on bass, from a photo that night), Vic, Nicky Giannaris, and David Gamble
had a band called the Tone-Tones, and they opened for the B-52s. It was the social event of the year for anyone NOT a football fan or a sorority girl, although they showed up as well. Dancing is, after all, tribal, and Athens is definitely a dance town. When folks tell me that they don’t dance, I know it’s all about where they were brought up. In Orangeburg, South Carolina, where I was reared, EVERYONE danced. You even “had to” take a couple of years of ballroom dancing. I not only took the lessons, but went on to teach it throughout my high school years. If you grow up in a dancing community, you probably dance.
At the concert, there was a contest for the world’s tallest hairdo. As I recall, Phyllis Stapler won. Fred had helped her rig a 10’ tall cage of chicken wire on top of her head. It was braced somehow with something like a base drum harness. The frame was filled with the dozens of wigs that we had all been buying at the Potter’s House.It looked like Marge Simpson’s hairdo, only taller, and streaked blonde, brunette, and auburn.
In September, I went to New York to see the band at CBGBs again.
I struck up a friendship with Linda France of the Urban Verbs
, who always sent the best postcards that she had hand-painted, such as this one, below.
In October, my sister Sue drove up from Charleston with her then 12-year-old son Duke for my 29th birthday. She brought with her several bushels of oysters and we had a great party that folks sauntered in and out of all night. I drew illustrations for folks who didn’t know how to open them, and, years later in Boston, I saw one of the drawings framed on Betty Alice’s wall.
My house had a
big porch out front where there were always a dozen or so folks during parties. Any time someone would see a cop car coming, they’d jump in the front window and we’d ditch the lights and the music while they rode by. Kate and I both remember ending up dancing till the wee hours, making music with alarm clocks, kitchen spoons, and anything else we could get our hands on. We would take turns being deejay, alternating an old American rhythm and blues number such as Jr Walker’s “Shotgun” with some British rock like the Stones’ “Shattered.” Devo’s “Satisfaction” followed by the original. Aretha, then Patti Smith. They were all on vinyl. Keith’s birthday is the same week as mine. Here we are reminiscing about the Georgia Theatre concert at the party.For my birthday, Fred wrote me a poem, which he published in 1987 in Fred Schneider and Other Unrelated Works
, illustrated by Kenny Scharf. The poem is called “Points” and here’s a scan of the original:
By then, of course, the band was world-renowned, with homes in Manhattan. Ricky had died of AIDS, and I was back in Charleston again, running my culinary bookstore. But I’m getting ahead of myself.Earlier in the year, Keith’s parents, who ran the bus station, were getting a little angsty about his career choice. He had, after all, never really worked anywhere but the bus station. The band enlisted my help drumming up some free publicity for a gig they had booked at the Last Resort, a local venue. Never mind that they had already wowed New Yorkers several times at Max’s and CBGBs and at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta. They definitely had a following. Nevertheless, they needed to win Athens over, at least partially to appease Keith and Ricky’s parents. I called Pete McCommons, who was the editor of the Athens Observer
, and asked him if I could write something about the band. I promised to provide photos as well. I knew Pete from when we both lived in cabins on El Robledal, Vella Stephens’s vast estate out on Jefferson Highway. (That’s another story, for another webpage.)
Sure, he said, but I need it this afternoon: so many words, typed, double-spaced, and the photos, too. Kate was working as a paste-up artist at the other newspaper in town, Fred was driving old folks in a community service van, and Cindy was nowhere to be found, but I had some photos I had taken of them a few days before in the blood-letting room of the mortuary where they rented studio space, and Keith said we could use the typewriter at the bus station. No computers back then. Here’s the article, in which I coined the term “Thrift Store Rock,” which was to be used in many articles to come. (As a film student, I never liked the term “New Wave” that so many critics were using, and the band certainly wasn’t PUNK.)
In New York, I met George Dubose, who invited me to come over to his studio where he was shooting what would become the band’s first album cover. The band was standing on a sheet of thin mylar that Robert Waldrop and I were trying to keep lying flat, but Kate had on stilettos that snagged it and Cindy had on some polyester stirrup pants that created static electricity. She kept telling me songs to put on the stereo. I remember playing “Tramp” by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. (Photo copyright George Dubose.)
Here’s a postcard Dana sent me when I was living in the Caribbean. That’s George on the right, with Richard Cramer, who was an assistant art director at Interview
. Dana was living in New York then.
The band was already recording its first album when I moved to the Virgin Islands. Someone airmailed me a copy when it came out and I all but wore it out that year. Rock Lobster was of course the party song of the year, but I’ve always loved Dance This Mess Around. Hero Worship is pretty amazing, too, with its golden lyrics by Robert Waldrop. Idolize his idol eyes, indeed!
The sketch below is the view from my apartment in Charlotte Amalie, sent as a postcard to my mother.
At Christmas that year I went to New York for a few months, where I worked as the personal chef to an eccentric young millionairess. The band had moved to New York as well, but they had bought a big house on Lake Mahopac, north of the city. Ironically, it, too, had been a Jewish country club of sorts. Or at least a very big house with two kitchens. Ricky was one of the first people I knew to have a computer, and he had a small sailboat there as well. Every time I went to Mahopac, he was either on the computer or out on his boat. Kate and I would go birdwatching and we could get the chickadees to land on our outstretched arms.
Here’s a shot of Kate that I took in Central Park one day when we were out birdwatching together.
I moved back to South Carolina, and, later in the year, Kate, Keith, and Robert Waldrop came to visit me on the plantation where I was caretaker. There were marsh tackies (wild horses), a herd of cattle, and lots of snakes and alligators. The band had been recording with Chris Blackwell in the Bahamas, and they had a copy of the master on a cassette tape. They had also been in Japan and brought back with them the first Walkman®. As Keith and Robert rowed me out in a jonboat on the pond in front of the house, Robert said, “You’re gonna die!” From that opening smash of glass and burst of guitar, I fell in love with their second album, Wild Planet
. There’s much to love, from the plaintive yearning of Give Me Back My Man
(“I’ll give you fish! I’ll give you candy!” has got to be one of the best lines of any rock song) to the manic dance numbers, Stobe Light
, Private Idaho
, and Devil in My Car
, their sophomore effort easily matched their debut album.
A year later, Keith and Ricky and Jerry (in photo) came to visit me on Folly Beach. They wanted to go out to a club, but I was such a recluse that I knew nothing about night life in Charleston. At the time in South Carolina, to serve alcohol you either had to make most of your money from food, or you had to be a private club. I called my sister Sue, who was a member of the Garden and Gun Club, a big dance club in an old J. C. Penney’s downtown, where gays and straights danced, played pool, and enjoyed the drag shows. We went, but were bored (it was a weeknight and Charleston had a total of about 4 restaurants then and very few hotels), so I called my sister again, who called her friend Ron Crawford, who called another club called Les Jardins, and asked them to let us in. No way, they told us. “It’s the B-52s,” he told them. Mike Hartzog was running the front desk and referred the call to Richard Little, the owner. The club, at the time South Carolina’s premier gay nightspot, usually played disco music for its regulars, who came from every small town in the state. Richard told “Aunt Mikey” that he would know the band when he saw them, to let them come in.
When we got there, he was standing on the steps that led upstairs to the dance hall with his arms crossed on his chest. He let Ricky and Keith and Jerry get in, then stopped me: “Who are you and what do you do for a living?” he asked. “You’re not in the band.”“No,” I told him, “but it’s me they’re visiting. I’m an artist, but I don’t know if what I do could be called making a living.”“Perfect!” he said, “My artist just moved to San Francisco and I have a lot of work that needs to be done. Be in my office Tuesday at one o’clock.”
When I got upstairs, the loudspeakers were blaring B-52s’ songs as the regulars looked around in awe. “Make them stop,” Keith begged, so I went and asked Richard to please change the music and just go ahead and play the disco music. We danced for a couple of hours and had some beer.
On Tuesday I went to see Richard and we have been best of friends ever since. He’s now a bigwig doctor here in DC at the National Cancer Institute, specializing in AIDS-related malignancies. Here’s one of the many commissioned works I did for him, this one for a Mardi Gras party at Les Jardins.
Having a hard time making a living in Charleston, I went to Florida with Master Chef Thom Tillman on the 112-foot yacht High Spirits, the sister ship to the Presidential Yacht Sequoia, a Trumpy built in 1929 of gleaming mahogany and black walnut. He taught me classic French cooking skills as we catered parties at the Boca Raton Club, Thom splitting the profits with me. Teresa was living in Miami at the time, and we got together often.
At the end of the season, I decided to move to Europe. I had turned 30 and figured I better go while I was still young. I was promised a job on a barge in Burgundy, but when I got to the offices in London, the person who had had the job the year before decided to come back to work after all. I moved to Paris and began presenting my art portfolio to galleries. When I was running low on cash and when my month in the hotel room I had rented was coming up, I happened to run into Mike Green, who I had heard was there, but whom I did not know how to contact. He was renting a room from Joel Patrick, who was being transferred. Did I need a place to stay? How does Ile St Louis sound?
In the meantime, the band released Mesopotamia, which was produced by David Byrne of Talking Heads. It was widely criticized for being too arty, though the dreamy quality of some of the songs was beguiling and the eponymous track is one of my favorites of all time, especially if I’m on the treadmill at the gym. I would walk for hours in the city, where I was inexplicably depressed for the first time in my life, even though I had never been down before. (Years later I would realize that it was light deprivation. Paris was incredibly dark and gray the entire time I lived there. The photo of the window display is indicative of what caught my eye then.) When I had to go to South Carolina because my mother was dying of leukemia, I made dozens of cassettes of my favorite records and bought a Walkman, thinking that I was probably depressed because my friends weren’t around. But by then I had made lots of friends, and had fallen in love with an Italian, and was living most of the time in Genoa, Italy. I also used language cassettes to teach myself Italian.
In Genoa I spent hours every day making art. A couple of years went by, during which time I made my living as both a photographer (shooting environmental portraits of ridiculously wealthy people and charging them a fortune for a contact sheet and one platinum print) and drawing life-size nudes in pastels. I remember walking through the carrugi
, as the narrow alleys of the old historic center of Genoa are called, and seeing the B-52s’ Whammy!
album in a window and buying it. I think it was the first thing I bought with some money that my mother had left me in her will. The second thing was to buy a big pile of huge handmade paper to draw on. I would spend days in my darkroom and basement studio, working by the light of the bare light bulb that hung there, but comforted by my friends’ music coming through the headphones. I was not depressed.
The light in Genoa is very special, as the British poets have long known. Bryon, Shelley, and Keats all lived there and described the special golden quality of the Ligurian sun. It reminded me of the light in Charleston, and I flourished there. I would emerge from the darkroom and walk the streets for hours, even though light barely made it down to the ground in the old part of town where we lived, the largest intact medieval city in the world. Nanette was living in Berlin and she came to visit; Greg was living in Rome, studying with John Pope Hennessy, and he came. My nephew Duke graduated from high school and came to Rome, where I visited him.Alas, I kept having visa problems (residency, not credit cards), and I would have to leave the country every six months. So I’d go to Paris. The band, who had become very popular, toured a lot, but we missed each other in Paris and Rome more than a few times. We stayed in touch with postcards, usually homemade, which had been a popular form of communication among artists for ten years at that point. Here’s one from Barbara, of RuPaul performing with the Now Explosion in Atlanta.
In Paris, I heard that there was a hip new magazine forming, so I applied for the job as Art Director, and, after cooking for the investors,
I was hired instead as the Food Editor. My life changed overnight.Ici New York was indeed hip: an oversized monthly magazine in French about the Big Apple. I moved back to the city and began writing about not only the food world, but also about my artist friends from Athens, many of whom had moved there shortly after the band. We published Kent Brown’s poems as well as Fred’s. We featured photos of Kate and quoted Ken (pictured below), who was beginning a career as a comedian.
We wrote about Robert Molnar’s fashions. Kate used to call the magazine, “J.T.’s Friends.” I began meeting lots of other food writers. I got assignments from The New York Times.
Here’s a photo of me in our office, holding up a page featuring a portrait I took of Kent. I should have reached out more to Kent in his final years, but we had grown apart, complicated by distance.My mother had left me over a thousand cookbooks, which I had read through as she lay dying. My apartment in New York was just a couple of blocks from Nach Waxman’s cookbook store, Kitchen Arts & Letters
. I think the first time I walked in, I introduced myself, told him that I would be a good customer, and then told him that I fully intended to steal his idea and open a shop like his back in South Carolina, where I had never been able to find a way to make a living. Certainly not taking the kind of photos I took or drawing the big male nudes I drew. And surely not writing about food.On the weekends, I would go out to Mahopac with Kate. The band had hired me to manage getting the house together for sale. All of them had places in the city by then. And there were both spoken and unspoken tensions from having lived and worked together all those years. When Ricky died in 1985, we were all shocked. Only Keith knew that he was ill, and he had remarkably kept the secret to himself as Ricky taught him all the guitar parts and he began writing much of the material himself. I’ve always admired Keith for his quiet strength in that period, and, as much as I loved Ricky’s innovative and funky guitar, I found that Keith’s music spoke to me much more. Ricky is credited on many of the songs of Bouncing Off the Satellites
, which was released in 1986, but the fuller sound of Summer of Love
, She Brakes for Rainbows
, Ain’t It a Shame
, and Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland
marked a necessary new direction that I know Keith was leading the band toward. The album was criticized for being all over the place, with band members doing their own songs instead of a more cohesive group effort, but the band was fractured at the time, if only from Ricky’s death, and many friends and fans were glad to see them move forward.
At a memorial service we had for Ricky at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where we had replaced some trees in the cherry esplanade in his honor, many of us spoke personally about Ricky, toasting his life. I realized that it was Ricky who had first turned me on to real Mexican food and who had first led me to the work of Diana Kennedy. Shortly thereafter, and on several occasions, Kate and I got together to prepare elaborate vegetarian feasts, following Diana’s explicit instructions. A labor of love, yes, but delicious and a worthy tribute to our deceased friend.
As the band stumbled in the aftermath of Ricky’s death, I moved a final time back to Charleston to open my culinary bookstore. The years in Europe and New York had been fun, but I was really a fish out of water, and didn’t have enough money, to really appreciate life in a big city, though we always entertained ourselves. The photo at right is from a party we had at my apartment in Spanish Harlem in February 1984. Beaujolais and mushrooms, followed by pitchers of margaritas in a Mexican restaurant. One of the best dance parties I ever had, but also the worst hangover I’ve ever had (and, fortunately, one of the last! Ah, youth!)
It is said that one’s best work comes out of adversity and/or despair. It certainly helped both the B-52s and me. Cosmic Thing
was released in the summer of ’89 and was considered by many to be the best B-52s album yet. It certainly was the most successful. It made them even bigger international stars, with Number One hits and an ensuing, seemingly never-ending tour. Hugo hit Charleston in September, just as the deadline for my first book was approaching. I continued to write, and turned in my first draft, but my editor politely told me that it was full of angst and anger, to go back to the drawing board. I honestly didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from. I had borrowed all the money to open the store. My insurance company had screwed me. And I was out of business for a year. Somehow I managed to pull it all together, though, and Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking
was a critical success, being reviewed by nearly every newspaper and magazine in the country. I made dozens of television appearances and became something of a celebrity myself.I knew that the band had really made it when a raunchy southern rock band playing at an oyster roast in a parking lot on Edisto Island played Love Shack
and the crowd went crazy. They had come a long way from guitars with missing strings and thrift store clothes!Several years later, I knew that I, too, had also made it when Kate came to visit during a rare break in another grueling tour, for Good Stuff
. I love every song on that album, even if I do miss Cindy’s voice. Kate did a great job on the album, and on the tour, but she was tired. We rented a funky house on the beach at Edisto. I went to see the band play in Charlotte and Kate came home with me for a week. I promised her that I wouldn’t let folks know that she was there, and I assured her that no one would bother her on Edisto. I had the car all packed, coolers full of food, and only had to stop once at the Piggly Wiggly on Edisto for last minute staples like milk, bread, and juice. There were some things that Kate wanted, but she was reluctant to go in the store. (She says that I was being overprotective. In fact, Kate has always accommodated her fans, making appearances, signing autographs, posing for pictures.) We went in and got what we needed so that we needn’t go shopping again that week, and, just as we were leaving the checkout counter, a woman came rushing toward us, saying, “Aren’t you…??” while following us. We began rushing to the car with the woman following us, “Excuse me, aren’t you… aren’t you…Hoppin’ John?”
We both started laughing so hard. It was so silly. The parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly on Edisto Island, South Carolina! The best part is that the woman then said, “My husband is gonna shit! He loves you!”
Kate and I had a great week together, including a wonderful canoe trip down the Edisto River, where cypress knees are four feet tall. I, too, had needed the break from running my store, working on my second book, and from my own book tour. But my life was simple compared to the band’s. When I look at their nearly nonstop tour schedule for 1989 and 1990, it’s a wonder they didn’t drop dead from exhaustion or kill each other. I saw them perform several times during that schedule, and the stress was beginning to wear on them. Cindy, of course, dropped out for awhile to have kids and rethink her life. (The band’s tour schedule in 92 and 93 was nearly as bad.)
I, too, had had to rebuild my life, finally re-opening my store, fighting an awful trademark infringement lawsuit, and finishing my first book. When it was getting ready to come out, I went to New York to plan my book tour with my publishers and went to visit Kate, Keith, and Fred, who were working on Good Stuff at Bearsville Studio. Here’s a photo of Keith at his house on the mountain. Don Was was mixing the title track, and Kate kept asking me which of a dozen tracks of her parts I liked best – for each phrase of the song! I wondered how on earth she would be able to pull off a live performance of the song, but I saw her perform those songs several times as well, and her command of her vocal skills had become awe-inspiring. She would half-jokingly refer to herself at the time as “the hardest working woman in show business,” as her voice appeared on songs with R.E.M. and Iggy Pop, and as she began branching out to sing in various projects with the other female rockers Maggie Moore, Tina Weymouth, and Debbie Harry.
I kept my store open until 1999. During those 13 years, Keith and Kate came to Charleston several times, as did Robert Waldrop, Dana (who moved there in ’94), Ken, Betty Alice, and John Beal, before we lost him to AIDS. I saw so many people succumb: Thom Tillman, Bobby Adams, Greg Whittington, Ron Crawford, and Michael Conyers; the list goes on. I had left the country during the Reagan years, at least partially because I couldn’t stand his politics. When And The Band Played On was released in 1987, I got copies donated and I let folks pay whatever they wanted, all of the money going to the local Charleston charity that helped AIDS victims. I had a column in a local alternative paper in which I usually wrote about food, but the editors sometimes let me rant about the ills of society. I think I guilt-tripped folks into writing checks that were much bigger than the book’s retail value. We raised lots of money. Later Clinton was elected, promising us some hope, but he failed to clean out the conservative administrators in most areas of government, and then he signed not only “Don’t ask; don’t tell,” but also the Defense of Marriage Act, two of the most insidious pieces of legislation I’ve ever read.
In 1994, I traveled with the band for awhile on assignment for The Washington Post, writing an article about their cook, Jan Waggoner (in the center of the photo). The article was never publised, but we had fun.
Cindy and Keith Bennett rented a beach house at Folly one year. That’s Tommy with Cindy below.
Robert moved to Charleston for awhile. Here he is with Dana’s daughter Ella Grace, before they moved there. (She’s now 17.)
Our universe of friends is expanding! Ken came to visit one year with members of the band Pavement.
Every few years or so, we’ll all get together at one of the band’s concerts. Here’s a group of us partying at Bob and Julia’s showroom in Savannah, where they moved to raise their kids many moons ago.
Left to right in the photo: back row: Cindy, Sally, Julia, Keith and Fred; front row: me and Bob.
Everyone accepted Mikel, my partner of 15 years, from the beginning as though he had been one of us from Athens days. In the photo on the right, he’s on the left with Kate with Dean Riddle in Dean’s garden in the Catskills in 1997, when Dean was the garden editor of Elle Decor.
I wrote 3 more cookbooks
(and an unpublished novel) before deciding to retire from the public eye in order to pursue other writing and artistic endeavors. All of the members of the B-52s settled into their own private home lives. Kate built her dream house atop a mountain, where I have visited her several times, and restored her Lazy Meadow Motel
, which has to be the funkiest inn in America! We’ve all managed to stay pretty close. Here’s a recent Christms card from Fred.
Above is a shot of some of the gang in a Vietnamese restaurant in New York, where we gathered after going to see the musical Hairspray. From left to right: David McCullough, Kelly, Mikel, Kate, Richard, and Fran McCullough, who edited my first two books.
Keith moved out of his mountain house and down to Key West with his partner Mark Hayda. Fred bought a house in the Hamptons. And Cindy had another kid and is in the midst of settling into her new home, close to where she has been living in Georgia all these years. We’ve all grown older, wiser, and calmer. But we all still love to dance.
If you don’t believe me, check out their new album, FUNPLEX
, being released in March.
Last year, Kate and her partner Monica Coleman (above) and Mikel and I rented a big fancy house with three other couples down on the Riviera Maya, where we drank tequila and danced till the wee hours to some early mixes of the new songs. Get ready to pump it up!!! Here are Kate and I dancing in Mexico. During one particular dance move that came to me during Juliet of the Spirits, one of their new songs, Kate and I started laughing so hard that we were gasping for air. The next day she christened it “the birthing dance.” You don’t wanna know.
P.S. I’ve heard from lots of folks about this posting on my blog. Keith’s email, with photos, is posted on the Readers’ Comments
Here’s what he wrote. He also sent the beautiful picture of the girls that he recently took in Paris:
The beat goes on.
This is so cool. You should write a book about this. I have tried to convey what our scene was like in interviews; that The B-52s were born out of a larger circle of artists, poets and friends in Athens, Georgia.
I have a beautiful book by the German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. She is the photographer who took those wonderfully sophisticated photographs of the Beatles when they were all very young and hanging out together in Hamburg, Germany. She loved styling the boys and girls … she created the Beatle haircut and would dress everyone in thin black slacks and turtle necks. She was so ahead of her time.
I’m fascinated by the fact that this small group of artists, poets and friends in Hamburg in the late 50s and early 60s, who were reading French existentialist writers and eastern philosophies, had such an influence on The Beatles, and pop culture as we know it today.
I believe that our little scene in Athens in the 70s was also a part of that bohemian lineage.
(The photo of Keith and me was taken in my courtyard in Charleston in 1987. The one of Kate and me was taken in the same courtyard a few years later.)
Everyone keeps writing me and saying that I should write a book about all this, but I think that I’ve pretty much shot my wad here on the blog. There’s so much more to say, but I will continue to update and revise this as folks remind me of chronological errors and exciting highlights I somehow missed.
Getting such positive responses from not only the band members, but also Mark Cline, Michael Lachowski, Bob and Julia Christian, Betty Alice Fowler, Robert Waldrop, Vic Varney, and others has been fun. I’ve never lost touch with any of these folks anyway. Dana Downs and I are like twins.
Here’s an email from Kate, from Februrary 21:
Hey J.T. and Everyone,
Thanks so much for your enthusiastic comments about the B-52s ( we dropped the ‘ for grammar’s sake, like the B-52′s WHAT?)
We’ve been doing a boatload of interviews to promote the new cd and also the single on radio (so y’all please call your local stations and ask them to play it ’till the juice runs out of it!)
We can’t wait for it to finally be released (March 23ish) – but we’ve already incorporated 6 of the new songs into our set- wait till you hear “pump”, “juliet of the spirits” , “hot corner” and “love in the year 3,000″ and all the other tracks- i hope they rock your world!
In the interviews we always mention that we were part of a whole group of like-minded ,wildly creative friends back in the day that helped inspire and fuel the whole thing-
I’ll never forget the first party at Julia and Gray’s , Sally workin’ her skirt,
or all of us going over to J.T.’s for fresh-made cornbread and breaking into a conga line over “shotgun”!
Or Teresa Randolf screaming “I can’t believe this is happening here in Athens, Georgia”!
Doing our first jam at Owen Scott’s basement and writing “killer bees”
Tommy Adams a go go boying in that crazy video Spencer Thornton did!
Dana Downs gettin’ DOWN!
and Robert Waldrop writing beautiful lyrics and being such an inspiration.
Ken Bullock as “Tony James” sitting on a tree branch at my little shack on Jefferson River Road and always making us laugh ourselves silly! Adele Maddry dancing and laughing wildly!
Anyway, love you all and let the blogs continue!
and more and more- John you’ve done a great job of BLOG! It’s great to be part of it all-
(and i’ll NEVER forget that mushroom party at your apt. in nyc!)