Friday, 11 September 2015

Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee

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[I wrote this book review for the essential Beige website earlier this summer. I’m posting it here too for posterity. I know from when I used to write for alternative arts and culture Nude magazine, online articles can sometimes vanish over time]

Author James Gavin has previously written absorbing biographies of twentieth century jazz luminaries like Chet Baker and Lena Horne. In his latest effort he focuses on definitive sultry blonde torch singer Peggy Lee (1920 – 2002).

As with his earlier subjects Gavin writes with precision and eloquence about their artistry and the qualities that made them unique. For Lee, it was her trademark alluring cool restraint and ultra-minimalism. Vocally she conveyed maximum emotional (and erotic) impact with little more than a smoky, languid murmur (“a tough purr,” Gavin calls it “... that kicked open the bedroom door”).  Without ever resorting to wailing, belting or breaking a sweat, Lee – arguably the great white jazz seductress of the last century - could be alternately soulful, sensual, bluesy, melancholy or swinging.  Her primary vocal influences were the intimate, effortless conversational styling of Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday. (According to Gavin, the latter actively resented the younger white upstart scoring hits from her songbook and getting rich in the process. “She stole every goddamn thing I sing,” Holiday reportedly grumbled). Presentation-wise, Lee emulated her idol Marlene Dietrich (flattering and dramatic onstage lighting, glittering sequinned gowns).

Reading Gavin’s insightful analysis, you find yourself yearning to re-visit Lee’s definitive musical statements like the finger-snapping “Fever”, the swirling Latin exotica of “Lover”(which Lee attacked “like a panther in heat”), “Johnny Guitar”, “I’m a Woman” (“a feminist anthem with a stripper beat”), “Black Coffee” and the supremely world-weary “Is That All There Is?”

But let’s face it, Beige readers like a bit of sensationalism and Gavin doesn’t disappoint: the gossip here is juicy. Gavin is exceptionally good on the neuroses, addictions and personal demons that drove the anguished musicians he writes about. His descriptions of the ageing and increasingly dysfunctional and self-destructive Lee’s twilight years ensconced in the darkened bedroom of her Hollywood mansion are almost eerie, verging on Sunset Boulevard or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? territory.

Lee’s serene and glamorous show business mask concealed a troubled, anxious and insecure woman. Onstage and on record her trademark persona was misty, mellow and slightly boozy. In fact Lee typically took to the concert stage benumbed and floating on a cloud of intoxicants. As Gavin reveals, this glazed-over, dreamy and detached demeanour was at least partly a side effect of the industrial quantities of cognac and later the tranquilisers Lee used to calm her nerves. (Valium. Seconal. Quaaludes – Lee popped ‘em all, Valley of the Dolls-style). “The queen of self-medication”, one of Lee’s retinue calls her. (Like all self-respecting divas, Lee went everywhere surrounded by an entourage. When crossed she could be vicious towards her employees).

In terms of myriad spectacular health crises (both real and psychosomatic) Lee’s only rival was Elizabeth Taylor. She loved to regale journalists with a litany of her illnesses and operations. (In the index at the end of Is That All There Is?, there is a separate lengthy sub-section devoted to “medical issues of PL”). Also like Taylor, Lee struggled with her weight. She had always lived with a commitment to old-school Hollywood glamour. As she aged and grew increasingly corpulent, that sensibility eventually tipped-over into unintended high camp. Multiple cosmetic surgery procedures left Lee’s face weirdly taut and expressionless. In fact, she underwent so many facelifts her hairline deeply receded (her hair had already thinned due to years of bleaching); Lee compensated with towering ringlet-festooned bouffant wigs that looked spun from meringue.

From the sixties onwards Lee gradually resembled a blowsy brothel madam or a drag queen imitating Mae West. It’s this fleshy and mature baroque Peggy Lee of the immobile face and forgiving diaphanous caftans that nightclub female impersonators like Jim Bailey and Craig Russell embraced – and reportedly was the inspiration for Miss Piggy of The Muppets, whose original full name was “Miss Piggy Lee” until Lee understandably objected.

And yet in Gavin’s compassionate account Lee ultimately emerges as a durable and tenacious survivor – albeit a wobbly, deeply-flawed and fallible one. Lee may have frequently been a temperamental pain in the ass, but no one disputed her talent. No matter how tormented her life offstage, Lee never lost the ability to mesmerise an audience. Perennially unlucky in love, she channelled her romantic disappointment into her music. A restless and uncompromising control freak, she fought her record labels for creative autonomy and challenged the Disney empire when she felt short-changed over royalties for the songs she composed for the 1955 Lady and The Tramp soundtrack. Long before the era of the singer-songwriter made it commonplace Lee frequently wrote her own lyrics. More than most of her pre-rock contemporaries, she strove to challenge herself and remain modern and relevant into the turbulent youth-dominated music scene of the sixties and seventies by covering contemporary pop hits - even though she received scant acclaim for it at the time and it alienated her conservative older fans. In the tradition of Edith Piaf, her passionate drive to sing saw Lee determinedly continuing to perform well into old age long after she was physically ailing and confined to a wheelchair. In her youth Lee endured hostile audiences, demanding bandleaders and the kind of tough, grit-building setbacks and indignities it’s difficult to imagine today’s performers tolerating. All examples of the iron will that propelled the former Norma Deloris Egstrom, a round-faced and nondescript farm girl from hardscrabble Depression-era rural North Dakota into the upper echelons of the music industry.

Reese Witherspoon is reportedly in negotiation with Lee’s family to make a Peggy Lee biopic. Certainly Lee’s life and career warrant the kind of deluxe film treatment already afforded Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Piaf. It will be interesting to see if the filmmakers do justice to the complex and volatile Peggy Lee.

Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin [£19.99 hardback available now. Simon & Schuster UK]


Bonus material: Gavin makes a persuasive argument that Peggy Lee’s great unsung masterpiece is Mirrors, her 1975 album of art-y, twisted dark neo-cabaret songs. It absolutely bombed on initial release both critically and commercially, but has since been reappraised as a "lost" cult album. Certainly the mysterious “The Case of M J” – which sounds like an off-kilter nursery rhyme or lullaby – must be the eeriest and most disturbed / disturbing thing Lee ever recorded.  In her most benumbed and deadpan voice, Lee seems to be describing the psyche of a mental patient or childhood abuse victim. It’s genuinely spine-tingling and David Lynch-ian. Once heard, never forgotten. “How old were you when your father went away? How old were you when your father went away ... ?”

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Lobotomy Room at Fontaine's DJ Set List 28 August 2015

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/ Ultra-twist like Jayne Mansfield - at Lobotomy Room! /

From the Facebook events page:

Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock'n'roll - at LOBOTOMY ROOM!

Leave all sense of shame and propriety at the door - when LOBOTOMY ROOM returns to its new home, the subterranean Bamboo Lounge of East London Art Deco boîte de nuit Fontaine's! Friday 28 August 2015!

At last - a club night for the hillbilly beau monde! LOBOTOMY ROOM! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! A spectacle of decadence for the permissive Continentally-minded! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk Cretin Hops! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs The Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell (of Dr Sketchy and Cockabilly notoriety). Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock!

Admission: FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

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/ Twist, damn it, twist! Vicious 1964 sexploitation shocker Olga's Girls. See the sordid trailer here

Friday 28 August represented the third installment of my monthly Mondo Trasho punkabilly booze party Lobotomy Room (a club night to corrupt! Seething with intrigue! Where passion simmers and boils - waiting to explode!) at its new spiritual home / natural habitat, the basement Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s. It really felt like things were finally clicking into place. On a good rewarding night like this, doing a Lobotomy Room can feel like a shuddering nightmare of ecstasy.

One definite bonus: at last I’m using a venue with a properly functioning DVD player hooked-up to a big screen (Fontaine’s regularly hosts movie nights) and I can finally project rancid atomic-era vintage erotica while I DJ – an extra touch I’ve always yearned for! As well as sentimental favourites Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955) which feature burlesque icons like Tempest Storm, Bettie Page and cat-faced Lili St Cyr in their prime, I’ve added some more recent titillating acquisitions. No matter what I’m playing, the frantically go-go dancing ultra vixens like Lorna Maitland and Babette Bardot in Russ Meyer’s buxotic sexploitation masterpiece Mondo Topless (1966) seem to be shakin’ it in perfect time to the music. Later I pushed the envelope a bit (I waited until the end of the night when everyone was drunk and loosened-up) and stuck on a compilation of fifties and sixties beefcake homo porn from Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild focusing on bad boys and hoodlums (think sailors, prisoners, black leather-jacketed bikers and juvenile delinquents). One for the connoisseurs of (reform school-tattooed) firm male flesh! Well-stuffed posing pouches a go-go! Some of the female attendees (and probably some of the males, too) were mesmerized by the homoerotic spectacle.

But most crucially of all - it was a genuinely wild, liquored-up and game-for-a-laugh crowd. 

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/ Farewell to Yvonne Craig aka Batgirl /

I declared that this particular Lobotomy Room was in honour of the memory of actress Yvonne Craig (16 May 1937 - 17 August 2015) who’d died earlier in the month aged 78. In her acting career the beautiful former ballerina co-starred opposite Elvis Presley twice and played a sexy green-skinned alien girl in an episode of Star Trek - but Craig truly achieved immortality as Batgirl in the ultra-kitsch sixties Batman TV series. No one looked better in a sparkly purple catsuit. I cranked-up Link Wray’s twang-y version of the Batman theme tune LOUD in tribute to Yvonne Craig.  

Another perennial Lobotomy Room staple is the volatile royal couple of rhythm and blues Ike and Tina Turner. The September 2015 issue of Sight & Sound magazine boasts a fun wide-ranging interview with trash maestro John Waters in advance of the British Film Institute's comprehensive season of his films (It Isn’t Very Pretty ... The Complete Films of John Waters. 1 September – 6 October). Waters’ love of the tempestuous Turners is well-documented. In the article he recalls how as teenagers in sixties Baltimore he and Divine would attend Ike and Tina Turner Revue gigs when they came to town:
“I don’t care what anyone says, (Tina) was better when she was with him. I mean, I don’t blame her for leaving him, good for her, but ... We would see them at Unity Hall, it was a kind of working-class, blue-collar Union Hall. And they came in a broken-down green school bus with ‘Ike and Tina Revue’ painted on the side, like, hand-painted. And she looked like she did on the cover of ‘Dynamite’ [the Turners’ second album together released in 1963]: she had on a ratty wig, a mink coat, a moustache, springalotors, she did have a moustache. She was un-believe-ably great. And the Ikettes behind them were so great. It was a huge influence on Divine and I, Tina Turner. And I still love her. God knows, they could sing. They were unbelievable together. I saw them a couple times. And they’d sing “Don’t Play Me Cheap.” Oh my god ... she was an influence. More than anybody.”

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/ Below: a selection of intimate and revealing photos from the night /

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/ My co-hostess for the evening was the high-maintenance and temperamental but adorable Lulu. Everyone made a fuss over her all night. I took this shot at the beginning of the night before anyone arrived yet. Lulu was locked away downstairs with me in the Bamboo Lounge while I was setting up and she was determined to go back upstairs to the main bar. (She’s not averse to making manipulative whimpering noises to get sympathy). Lulu is one strong-willed bitch! What a diva! /

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/ Gypsy and Lulu: I instructed Gypsy to channel those sixties paparazzi shots of Jayne Mansfield cavorting with her pet chihuahua /

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/ Pal (my fancy man) and Ruby Martin (aka the former burlesque danceuse Emerald Fontaine), the glamorous boss lady of Fontaine's /

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/ Louise (in the sequins on the right) and friend /

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/ Lobotomy Room attracts the crème de la crème of bad girls /

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/ This is my usual befuddled expression behind the DJ booth. (I'm bathed in lurid green Frankenstein lighting from the neon sign behind me) /

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/ Portuguese Mario and Danny /

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/ A glimpse into my DJ bag /

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/ Dance floor mayhem /

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/ Always the centre of attention: Lulu got around /

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/ Cheesecake glamour shot of Gypsy /

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/ Mario, Danny and I /

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/ Pal and Danny having an intense conversation /

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/ Not sure if I'm trying to snap my fingers beatnik-style or give the finger here /

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/ Gypsy apparently channeling Divine in Pink Flamingos /

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/ Gypsy and I at the end of the night /

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/ Gypsy, pink flamingo and I: are these The Filthiest People in London? /

Let's Go, Baby - Billy Eldridge
Tear Drops from My Eyes - Ruth Brown [played in error! But there are far worse songs to play by mistake]
Tough Bounce - The Fabulous Wailers
Killer - Sparkle Moore [rare "screaming" version]
The Coo - Wayne Cochran
Sweet Little Pussycat - Andre Williams
Eight Ball - The Hustlers
Eager Beaver Baby - Johnny Burnette
Beaver Shot - The Periscopes
Drummin' Up a Storm - Sandy Nelson
I'm a Bad, Bad Girl - Little Esther
I Was Born to Cry - Dion
Town without Pity - James Chance
Beatnik - The Champs
Bombora - The Original Surf-aris
Like a Rolling Stone - Mamie Van Doren
Stranger in My Own Home Town - Elvis Presley [x-rated version]
The Whip - The Originals
Ain't That Good? George Kelly and His Orchestra
Frenzy - The Hindus
I Wish I Were a Princess - Little Peggy Marsh
Monkey Bird - The Revels
Kismiaz - The Cramps
Misirlou - Martin Denny
Taita Inty (Virgin of the Sun God) - Yma Sumac
Uska Dara - Eartha Kitt
Night Scene - The Rumblers
Johnnie Lee - Faye Adams
Little Queenie - Bill Black's Combo
Sick and Tired - Lula Reed
I Learn a Merengue, Mama - Robert Mitchum
One Mint Julep - Sarah Vaughan
Go Calypso - Mamie Van Doren
Green Mosquito - The Tune Rockers
A Fool Such as I - The Earls of Suave
Fever - Nancy Sit
I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
That Makes It - Jayne Mansfield
The Flirt - Shirley and Lee
Rockin' the Joint - Esquerita
Goodbye So Long - Ike and Tina Turner
Uptown to Harlem - Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin
Dangerous Lips - The Drivers
Taboo - The Shangaans
No Good Lover - Mickey and Sylvia
Your Groovy Self - Nancy Sintra
Save It - Mel Robbins
Jailhouse Rock - Judy Nylon
Scorpion - The Carnations
Hoy Hoy - The Collins Kids
Let's Have a Party - Wanda Jackson
Dragon Walk - The Noble Men
Twist Talk - Jack Hammer
Ultra Twist - The Cramps
Let's Twist Again - Johnny Hallyday
Twistin' the Night Away - Divine
Khrushchev Twist - Melvin Gayle
You're Driving Me Crazy - Dorothy Berry
Batman - Link Wray
Your Phone's Off the Hook - The Ramonetures
Breathless - X
Rock Around the Clock - The Sex Pistols
Heartbreak Hotel - Buddy Love
Little Girl - John and Jackie
Margaya - The Fender Four
Lucille - Masaaki Hirao
Big Bad Boss Beat - The Teen Beats
Woo Hoo - The Rock-A-Teens
Wipe Out - The Surfaris
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Shortnin' Bread - The Readymen
Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen
I Can't Believe What You Say - Ike and Tina Turner
Jim Dandy - Ann-Margret
Chicken Grabber - The Nite Hawks
How Much Love Can One Heart Hold? Joe Perkins and The Rookies
Whistle Bait - Larry Collins
One Hand Loose - Charlie Feathers
Somethin' Else - Sid Vicious
Deuces Wild - Link Wray
Fools Rush In - Ricky Nelson
Viva Las Vegas - Nina Hagen
Aphrodisiac - Bow Wow Wow
Blitzkreig Bop - The Ramonetures
Somebody Put Something in My Drink - The Ramones
Rip It Up - Little Richard
Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad - Tammy Wynette
It's a Gas - The Rumblers
Fist City - Loretta Lynn
Woman - Peggy Lee
Cry-baby - The Honey Sisters
Long Blonde Hair, Rose Red Lips - Johnny Powers
Juke Box Babe - Alan Vega
Roll with Me Henry - Etta James
The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard
Love Me - The Phantom
Her Love Rubbed Off - Carl Perkins
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran
Dancin' with Tears in My Eyes - X
Strychnine - The Sonics
My Way - Nina Hagen
She Said - Hasil Adkins
Go Wild in the Country - Bow Wow Wow
Centurion - Intoxica
Beat Girl - ZZ und Der Maskers
I Only Have Eyes for You - The Flamingos

Further reading:

Read about all the previous antics at Lobotomy Rooms to date here,here,here,here,here,here,hereherehereherehere and here!

Follow me on tumblr for all your putrid vintage sleaze, kitsch and homoerotic beefcake needs! A glimpse into my anguished psyche! NSFW and never will be!


See all the photos from the 28 August 2015 Lobotomy Room - uncut and uncensored - on flickr.

Most importantly ...

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Attention, freaks! The next Lobotomy Room is Friday 25 September 2015! Facebook events page here.


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