Sunday, 8 October 2017

Reflections on ... Tally Brown, New York (1979)

/ Tally Brown photographed by Francesco Scavullo in 1969 /
"... but the most magnificent, inimitable fräulein is the zaftig subject of Tally Brown, New York (1979) - a must-see for all those interested in performance and the cultural history of New York in the 70s. The bewigged Miss Brown, with false eyelashes capable of sending her short, round body aloft, is the most mesmerising raconteur and cabaret artist you’ll hear all year. Opening the film with her indelible cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Tally concludes with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” performing that song’s line – “You’re not alone! / Give me your hands”—as a rallying cry far more rousing than several decades’ worth of tepid gay-rights chants."
Melissa Anderson reviewing Tally Brown, New York in The Village Voice in 2003

/ Tally Brown photographed by Francesco Scavullo in 1969 /

Watching Tally Brown, New York (1979), I couldn’t help but think: thank god, a filmmaker documented this remarkable, charismatic and completely original woman. And that it was someone as simpatico as queer New German cinema maverick Rosa von Praunheim.

Von Praunheim weaves a revealing portrait of chanteuse, actress, show business doyenne, bohemian earth mother and all-round diva Tally Brown (1934 – 1989), preserving both her riveting nightclub act and her personal offstage life. And good thing he did as Brown -  a vivid scene-maker in New York’s underground art subculture in the sixties and seventies - seems to have completely fallen through the cracks in the decades following her death. A Torch for Tally – the blues album she recorded in the fifties – is long forgotten. The Andy Warhol art movies she appeared in like Camp (1965) and Ari and Mario (1966) languish unseen in locked vaults at The Warhol Foundation (I managed to catch them when the British Film Institute held a comprehensive Warhol retrospective about ten years ago. Brown is magnetic in both). In 2017, Tally Brown barely seems to exist as a footnote.

/ Tally Brown photographed by Francesco Scavullo in 1969 /

The Barbican screened this ultra-rare documentary (in a grainy 16-millimetre print on loan from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) on 4 October as part of it’s The Grime and The Glamour:NYC 1976 – 1990 series devoted to “the wild days and night of New York’s coolest era”. As the title implies, von Praunheim positions flaming creature Brown - a native New Yorker - as the personification of her city’s decayed glamour. In atmospheric and beautifully degraded footage, we see seventies New York at its most gloriously scuzzy, grungy and decrepit: the porn cinemas and peepshows of Times Square, gay bathhouses, The Chelsea Hotel, neon signs, dive bars, dissolute nightclubs. And it all looks heavenly!

/ Tally Brown photographed by Billy Name in the sixties (almost certainly at Max's Kansas City). This shot is in Name's 1997 book All Tomorrow's Parties - the first time I ever heard of Tally Brown /

/ Lady sings the blues: Tally Brown in her youth /

Brown was a classically-trained (at Julliard) and adventurous singer with a disparate repertoire who regularly performed at venues like Reno Sweeney’s, SNAFU and gay bathhouse The Continental Baths. Onstage, we see Brown deliver jazz and blues standards (like “Goody Goody” and an intense, emotionally tormented version of Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny”) with commanding authority. But she also had a penchant for wittily and radically re-interpreting modern rock music like “Love in Vain” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. She was especially partial to David Bowie. In the film we see her cover “Heroes” (she sings the final verses in Marlene Dietrich-like German), an eerie “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Accompanied only by a pianist, Brown transforms the Bowie tracks into perverse torch songs. Call me a heretic but I’m no “rockist” or Bowie fan, so I prefer Brown’s slinky, dramatic, tortured and Eartha Kitt-like versions to the originals.

Brown moved in avant-garde circles and in von Praunheim’s film we encounter a pantheon of the era’s countercultural hip queer elite, including her friends Taylor Mead (his drooling village idiot antics are either enchantingly childlike or grating depending on your sensibility) and the effervescent, self-deprecating Holly Woodlawn. A silent Andy Warhol is briefly seen (but not interviewed). At one point No Wave “it girl” Anya Phillips performs an abject burlesque routine to a bar full of indifferent men. A glittering, turbaned Eartha Kitt is viewed carried aloft on the shoulders of a semi-naked African-American bodybuilder (she was then starring in the Broadway production of Timbuktu). For Divine fans the film offers a bonanza. We see him offstage with his own cropped greying hair, clad in a red kaftan and then onstage in full drag in a fragment of the 1978 stage production The Neon Woman. Post-show Brown “interviews” Divine backstage and jokes about regularly getting mistaken for him - and even signing autographs as him.

/ Above: Eartha Kitt as she appears in Tally Brown, New York (costumed for the musical Timbuktu) /

/ Divine and Tally Brown /

Divine (as Flash Storm) backstage during a performance of The Neon Woman at Hurrah in New York, 1978 /

/ Grace Jones and Tally Brown /

In an ideal world Brown would be revered as a LGBTQ icon. Certainly, she has qualities that should make her catnip for aficionados of camp. For one thing, Brown looks like an escapee from a John Waters film. Squint and she can resemble both Divine and Edith Massey. Her highly individual and distinctive appearance is extreme and drag queen-like. She favoured white powder, heavy black eye shadow, false eyelashes as thick as tarantulas and huge, ratty bouffant wigs. (Judging by the film, she also chain-smoked like a demon).  Brown’s plump feline face can evoke both Kewpie doll or Kabuki mask.

/ Tally Brown in the underground film Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers (1972) /

And she was zaftig. Or Rubenesqe. Hell, the rotund Brown was frankly and defiantly fat and owned it. Von Praunheim shows her visiting a much-younger artist ex-lover who lives in The Chelsea Hotel. Asked what attracted him to Brown, he explains it was her sensuality and confidence about her size, likening her to “a fertility goddess … like the Venus of Willendorf.” Unfortunately, by the time von Praunheim made this film, Brown’s body was a ruined temple. Following an accident that shattered her knee, she relied on a cane and lived with a degree of immobility and pain.

Tally Brown, New York is most enthralling when von Praunheim simply follows Brown wandering around her local neighbourhood as she shields her vampiric pallor with a pink parasol, just like Vampira or Lily Munster. Or visiting her elderly mother in Florida (which Brown dismisses as “a geriatric ghetto”). The Floridian sunbathing seniors in pastel-coloured leisurewear stare aghast as Brown passes by. During these segments, accomplished raconteur Brown extemporises on the soundtrack about the vagaries of life on fringes of show business (she speaks with maternal tenderness about fallen Warhol superstars doomed to die young like Ingrid Superstar, Andrea Feldman and Candy Darling), her encounters with the Mafia, her love of marijuana (she was initiated into smoking reefer by jazz musicians and is contemptuous of “the Woodstock generation” embracing it). Her speaking voice is posh, cultured (she’s clearly had elocution lessons) and reminiscent of Eartha Kitt’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s. Brown got her start singing rhythm-and-blues in sleazy burlesque joints and her preferred audience was old strippers and young sailors. Asked about singing at The Continental Baths, she purrs that it turned her on. (“I love real decadence …”). As well as New York and Florida, the film shuttles to other places Brown lived over the years while touring in theatrical productions such as The Pajama Game, Medea and Mame, including Las Vegas, Hollywood and New Orleans. Wherever she performed, Brown immersed herself in the local demi monde. In Vegas she embraced a nocturnal lifestyle, performing three or four shows daily and then not sleeping for days at a time – perhaps outing herself as speed freak? Brown reminisces about partying with the drag queens of New Orleans’ French Quarter while von Praunheim shows us a leather man in chaps loitering outside a gay bar, his furry ass exposed in a pair of chaps. Ah, the low-life of Bourbon Street! Basking in Tally Brown’s ambience for 93-minutes is intoxicating.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The World of the Heterosexual ...

The Problem with Women Today, According to Daily Mail Readers. Aunt Ida in Female Trouble was right! The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Glory Gala featuring Liza with a Z: 7 July 2017

As promised on the Facebook event page: 
THE GLORY GALA Featuring Liza with a Z
The Glory is excited to announce its first ever ‘GLORY GALA’ in the beautifully restored Art Deco ballroom of Stoke Newington Town Hall on Friday 7th July
Following on from the amazing success of LIPSYNC1000, Jonny Woo will stage a re-enactment of the award-winning 1972 TV special Liza with a Z. Featuring 25 of the LIPSYNC1000 stars and some extra special guests, hosted by The Glory’s own John Sizzle, Liza Minnelli is getting a 21st Century makeover!
Alongside the ‘Liza’ centrepiece, The Glory Gala brings our favourite DJs and a selection of the new Drag King Stars from this year’s season of MAN UP! who will be showcased in the 'Glory Gentlemen’s Club"
The Glory Gala heralds our first celebration of Pride in London with a showcase of everything you love about The Glory. Spectacular, riotous, joyous cross-dressed party carnage. And with over 25 Liza Minnellis on show, what isn’t there to love?

/ Freida Slaves: one of the many facsimiles of Liza Minnelli! /

The Glory’s Pride 2017 Gala at Stoke Newington Town Hall on 7 July was a  truly glorious freaking tour de force! Or as my boyfriend Pal put it: amazing with a Z!

The evening incorporated a painstaking and imaginative recreation of Liza Minnelli’s 1972 TV special Liza with a Z musical number-by-musical number live onstage. Think of it as a night of 1001 Lizas: the huge cast (including Jonny Woo, Jayde Adams and La JohnJosephincorporated a disparate crew of multiple Minnellis of all genders and ethnicities, many of whom sporting luxuriant facial hair. (All of the surrounding wig emporiums from Dalston to Peckham must have sold out of short, perky Liza Minnelli-style pixie Dynel wigs).

/ Friend of Dorothy: effervescent emcee John Sizzle channeling Liza. Or is that mama Judy? /

While I treasure Minnelli as a kitsch figure of fun (she personifies pill-popping Valley of the Dolls-style smiling-through-your-tears glitzy old-school show biz corniness), I also mainly know her for her dysfunctional hot mess years: terrible films like Rent-a-Cop (1988) and Stepping Out (1991), her highly publicised stints in rehab, her mortifying short-lived marriage to the repellent David Gest and that befuddled, heavily-medicated episode where she hawked her own line of clothes on the Home Shopping Network. This night was a good reminder that in her seventies prime (around the time of Cabaret (1972) and when she was rubbing shoulders with the Warhol crowd at Studio 54 clad in head-to-toe Halston), Minnelli was a vivid, original and credible performer. (It’s got to be said, though: Pal and I watched Minnelli’s 1972 TV special in bed on the iPad the night after. In some cases, The Glory’s performers improved on the original!).  

/ Above: Liza Minnelli Polaroid by Andy Warhol. Let's remember her this way / 

/ Above: Jonny Woo and co recreating the "Ring Them Bells" musical number /

And – judging by the enthusiastic and diverse crowd’s hunger for jazz hands, sequins and tremulous emoting - Minnelli’s enduring status as a cherished gay icon is clearly unassailable. Anyway, everyone was great. Or “terrific” as Minnelli herself would say. Pal (who has a dance background) is ultra-critical of other dancers and even he said he was dazzled by how they’d nailed the slinkily sinuous Bob Fosse choreography.

Much as I loved Freida Slave’s interpretation of “Bye Bye Blackbird” (above) my highlight was the finale (which most definitely had nothing to do with the original Liza with a Z!): an anguished John Sizzle in a ratty fright wig, hospital gown and wheelchair seemingly in throes of a nervous breakdown and en route to rehab, tormented by dancers in David Gest wigs to a soundtrack of Liza belting out the 1989 Pet Shop Boys-produced synth-pop version of “Losing My Mind.” 

/ Liza Minnelli in hell: John Sizzle tormented by the David Gest dancers. (These two pics swiped from Hackney Pride 365 Facebook page. Photos by Georgi Banks-Davies) /

I didn’t catch his name, but I also loved the queen with the tinsel wig and glitter-dusted mustache who performed a berserk lip-synch to the title song “Liza with a Z” in which Minnelli works herself up into an increasingly foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy explaining how to spell and pronounce her name. (When I was posting photos on my phone onto Facebook, auto-correct kept changing “Liza” to “Lisa” and I thought, “That’s exactly what Liza was protesting about!”). I don’t have any footage of him, but here is the original. 

The aftermath: afterwards, drunk, we did precisely what Liza Minnelli herself would have done - rampaged through the streets of Stoke Newington on the hunt for fried chicken.

/ Above: Chris, Pal and I /

/ Louise, Chris and Pal /

/ Louise, Chris and Pal /

/ Me, Louise and Chris /

/ Chris and I, recreating that old Mickey Hargitay / Jayne Mansfield party trick /

I think I'll just leave this historic queer encounter here: John Waters and Liza Minnelli /

/ In closing: Liza Minnelli jumping (belatedly) on the disco bandwagon and absolutely slaughtering Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" in 1980 /

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Club 82 Exhibit at The Horse Hospital

Typical drag revue at Club 82 in the fifties. All that bamboo! Tiki heaven! /

"The Horse Hospital is proud to present an installation of rare photographs, brochures and related documents from the notorious Club 82, an outrageous drag club that operated exclusively in New York East Village from 1953 until the mid 1970s. The basement club was home to a host of famous female impersonators and gained a reputation for vivid and extravagant live shows, celebrity clientele and raucous soirees.
Before the Stonewall riots of 1969, openly gay bars and clubs were illegal. Club 82, like many other “gay” establishments of the time who sought impunity from the authorities, was reportedly owned and operated by the mafia. Slipping through the grasp of the law, the club’s popularity grew with both heterosexual and gay clientele.
As Club 82 flourished, the USA’s top female impersonators flocked to the club in search of employment, some holding jobs there for decades. The Revue – the clubs in-house stage show – was directed by Kitt Russell, a US Navy veteran revered as “America’s top femme mimic”. Their live-shows were complex and labour intensive productions combining innovative stagecraft, scored music, and complex choreographies. They were known for their dazzling costume design and high production values – one theatre programme stating: “The skillful design of our underwater scenes is the work of Terry Lane. They are all quite beautiful, but actually it would have been much less expensive to flood the club.”
However the burgeoning LGBT rights movement of the 1970’s would see laws and public opinion change, consequently elicit drag clubs like Club 82 either closed their doors or adapted into more conventional venues. By 1974 the New York Dolls, and other Punk bands had played there in an effort to keep its doors open, but sadly it remained a relic of a different time, and in the end nothing could save it. This exhibition uncovers an important and little known chapter of queer culture and history in New York at that time."

I went to the opening vernissage of the Club 82 exhibit at London's Horse Hospital on 14 July 2017. (Sadly, by the time I post this the exhibit will have closed – it finishes on 5 August. Sorry! )

It offers a fascinating queer social history of the “lost world” of the famous New York drag club, which from 1953 until the early seventies was the reigning “unique nite spot” for “late nite rendez-vous” and “late nite diversion-seekers!” In the realm of Club 82 the performers were called things like “femme impersonators” or “femme mimics” rather than drag queens. The trend for these old-school fifties queens was to be lady-like and ultra femme, with the main aim of convincingly “passing” via bouffant wigs, sequinned cocktail sheaths or showgirl outfits. Later in the sixties and early seventies the Warhol drag superstars, the Cockettes and then Divine would well and truly rip up that template for something punkier and freakier – but it’s a sweetly nostalgic pre-Stonewall image to re-visit and appreciate. (Club 82 also boasted tuxedoed waiters and bartenders with Brylcreemed hair – who were in fact butch drag kings). Interestingly, from what I can gather Club 82’s clientele was mixed. In those days straight people liked to prove how cosmopolitan and daring they were by visiting taboo, exotic and “forbidden” clubs like this for a taste of La Dolce Vita decadence! 

/ I'm assuming Kim August was Club 82's pouty and sultry blonde Brigitte Bardot or Jayne Mansfield equivalent /

The Horse Hospital exhibit is tiny but dense with information. The walls are lined with a display of rare brochures, photos and magazine articles. The highlight is the amazing slideshow of images of the Club 82’s elaborate drag stage productions. This is accompanied by a great soundtrack of actual recordings from Club 82 drag revues: you hear snatches of risqué “blue” comedians doing their routines alongside smoky jazz and lounge music. It’s very atmospheric and creates a sleazy nightclub ambiance. 

Here's a few photos I snatched at the opening preview:

For a treasure trove of more info and photos pertaining to Club 82, visit here

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Las Vegas Grind! Reflections on Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend 2017

Blimey! I’d better post a Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend 2017 blog while I can still remember it. Life kept getting in the way ever since arriving back in London (I was poleaxed by jetlag, went straight back to work, promoted my club nights, came down with one mutha of a cold blah blah). But here is a bit of a rushed precis. In fact, it will probably read in parts like bullet points!

Even more than usual, it felt this year’s Viva Las Vegas (13-16 April 2017) went by in a boozy, sleep-deprived blur. It was the festival’s twentieth anniversary – and the year Viva had its “United Airlines moment”. As the weekend progressed the crowds just kept getting thicker and denser until people began to suspect the organiser Tom Ingram had over-sold the tickets (as in: sold way more wristbands than the venue could accommodate). It meant that at peak times (like seeing the big-name headliners Si Cranstoun or Wanda Jackson), the ball rooms instantly reached maximum capacity and The Orleans Hotel and Casinos’ security men stopped letting people enter. At the worst point, Viva attendees were trapped downstairs on the casino’s ground floor, getting herded and yelled at by security guards, unable to take the escalators up to the convention centre where the festivities were taking place.  In the rage and frustration, there were reports of fights breaking out. If you were lucky enough to manage to get into one of the ball rooms and had to split to use the restrooms – forget it! You were ordered to join the back of the long, snaking line in the corridor for “one in, one out” before you could re-enter. And trying to get a drink …

Judging by the tsunami of furious tirades on social media, some peoples’ entire weekends were ruined. People were posting pics of their wristbands demanding “What was this for?” They’d flown from all over the globe to attend. Many have vowed never to come to Viva Las Vegas again. One woman ticked off a summary of how much her airfare, hotel bill and wristband had cost -  and then said she and her husband had not been able to see any of the shows they wanted to! Some accused Ingram of “over-selling” tickets out of greed. He’s since responded by arguing the over-crowding was because of widespread bootleg wristbands (I still don’t understand the logistics of how that would work) and assured everyone that he and the management of The Orleans are coordinating to ensure this never happens at Viva Las Vegas again.

Luckily For my friends and I, nothing we experienced was that bad. Possibly because as a hardened Viva veteran I knew to arrive early for everything. I managed to attend all the shows I wanted to (and the Sunday afternoon pool party). After all these years, I still maintain it’s impossible to have a bad time at Viva Las Vegas! (And bear in mind the first year I went I was struck down with an excruciating case of shingles!). Anyway, here is my rundown.

Thursday 13 April: My plane touched down in Vegas late on the Wednesday night. No matter how exhausted you are after the draining transatlantic flight, the shuttle bus journey from the airport into the city by night – being plunged into the gloriously tacky, lurid flickering neon realm of the Strip – is exciting. Once I finally arrived and checked in at The Orleans I crashed out in bed and slept straight through until Thursday morning. (This year I split the hotel room again with my friend Kevin from New Orleans).

/ Brazilian eye candy at the Hooch and Smooch! Double bassist of Lennon Z & The Sickboys Trio /

The first day of Viva Las Vegas inevitably means attending the annual afternoon introductory Hooch and Smooch party hosted by Seattle’s doyenne of rockabilly Sweetpea. It’s a great chance to drink, mingle and catch up with everyone and ease your way into the madness ahead. Of the bands we caught at the Hooch and Smooch, the highlight was The Rip ‘Em Ups from Los Angeles.

/ Kevin and I at The Hooch and Smooch /

/ Patrick and Little E at The Hooch and Smooch /

/ Rich and Kevin at The Hooch and Smooch /

/ Sean Law (from behind), Little E and Rich at The Hooch and Smooch /

/ One of the heartthrobs of the weekend - saxophonist of the Rip 'Em Ups. One suave fucker /

After watching a few bands and sinking some beers at the Hooch and Smooch, Kevin and I hopped in a cab for tropical cocktails at perennial Las Vegas favourite Frankie’s Tiki Room. This is in fact one of my most beloved bars in the world. Potent cocktails (I sank a Mai Tai – Frankie’s speciality – followed by a Stinger), dark atmospheric lighting (it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust when you first enter – a good sign), Polynesian decor and an impressively hip jukebox heavy on the surf instrumentals make Frankie’s one of my happiest places on earth. From there we hailed another cab to investigate a new Tiki upstart on the scene – The Golden Tiki. Located in Vegas’ Chinatown, it opened since I was last in Vegas in 2015 so it was new to us. Some friends had warned about bad service at The Golden Tiki, but Kevin and I were treated like visiting royalty. And the Mai Tais were excellent. Then it was back to The Orleans for more Viva Las Vegas carousing.

/ Drinking kitsch tropical cocktails in the darkened Polynesian-style environs of Frankie's Tiki Room. Left: my Stinger. Right: Kevin's Three Dots and a Dash  /

/ Kevin at Frankie's Tiki Room /

/ Tiki heaven: the men's room at Frankie's Tiki Room. Yma Sumac forever! /

/ Exterior of Frankie's Tiki Lodge /

/ Punk decor inside Frankie's Tiki Room /

/ Kevin and I drinking Mai Tais at The Golden Tiki. Doesn't this giant clam shell look like something out of The Flintstones? /

/ Reunion with Natelle /

/ Natelle and Sharon /

/ Tropical Tiki print bonanza! Sheila and friend /

/ Little E and glamorous friend /

Friday 14 April: After breakfast Kevin and I decided to investigate the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. As we cut through the casino to get to the taxi rank outside, two women walked past us.  One of them was an exceptionally striking older woman who looked vaguely familiar. For some reason, I did a double take. My first response was: great cheekbones. Good legs. Followed by: Wait! Is that Exene Cervenka?! In my elite pantheon of eternal punk heroes, spooky punk poetess and tattooed voodoo dolly Exene, the frontwoman / twisted bride of essential Los Angeles punk band X, comes at the absolute top. I’ve loved Exene – and her band X – since I was a teenager. To put it into context, there are  maybe two essential, iconic "faces" of Los Angeles punk: Germs frontman Darby Crash (the doomed Sid Vicious of the scene) and Exene. I immediately blurted to Kevin: “That was Exene Cervenka!” He replied, “Where?” I pointed-out the tousle-haired woman in the denim mini-skirt and cowboy boots. We did an inconspicuous loop to pass them again so Kevin could see for himself. (Kevin is a product of the Los Angeles punk scene who’s seen X multiple times over the decades. If anyone could recognise Exene at ten paces, it’s him). “That’s her!” he confirmed.

/ Patrick, Sheila and Rich arriving for breakfast /

/ Punk goddess Exene Cervenka circa 1980 /

My heart was pounding! For the rest of the day, we were abuzz with speculation. Why was Exene in town staying at the sold-out Orleans during Viva Las Vegas? Her name appeared nowhere on the schedule. Was she making a surprise guest appearance with someone? At one point X’s peers The Blasters had been scheduled to headline at the car show on Saturday. Exene joining them onstage would be a logical fit. But The Blasters had dropped out of the line-up. She’d recorded with surf-punk instrumental combo Los Straitjackets in the past, who were definitely playing at the car show on Saturday. Maybe them? One thing was certain: I needed to cross paths with Exene again! Getting a photo of her was suddenly my most urgent art project of the weekend! I’d memorably met Exene once before in London in 1995 when she was performing in town with her kindred spirit and occasional accomplice Lydia Lunch (they were promoting their spoken word album Rude Hieroglyphics. In 1982 the two had collaborated on a volume of stark beatnik poetry entitled Adulterers Anonymous). I hung out with them one afternoon and spoke to Exene while she played pinball. She was a tough cookie (in repose Exene’s natural resting face is a scowl. She’s of Czech descent – hence the surname – and has brooding Slavic bone structure) but amiable. I remember we agreed that Under the Big Black Sun was X’s best album. Looking back, I could kick myself that I didn’t have a camera handy and taken a photo of Exene and Lydia together in such relaxed circumstances when I had a chance! I was determined to rectify that in Vegas.

/ Exene Cervenka and John Doe (her then-husband) of the Los Angeles punk band X, photographed in the early eighties /

Anyway, the Burlesque Hall of Fame museum. It’s a bijou one-room space but packed with fascinating memorabilia and worth visiting. Displays line the walls, tracing the risqué history of strip-tease from its roots in nineteenth century vaudeville up to its atomic-era zenith, renaissance in the nineties and to the present day. All of the genre’s exemplary names (like Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Liz Renay and Tura Satana) are amply represented. One thing Kevin and I agreed on afterwards: the museum is completely silent. A soundtrack of sleazy Las Vegas Grind-style bump’n’grind tittyshaker music playing on a continuous loop would have improved the ambiance immeasurably.

/ Above: the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum /

We returned to The Orleans in time for the Charles Phoenix slideshow. By this point, the effervescent and joyously camp Phoenix – humorist and ambassador of kitschy Americana, very much in the lineage of John Waters – is a Viva Las Vegas institution. He always does two different slideshow presentations during Viva Las Vegas. Attending both is obligatory!  The title of one this year was “Fins, Flair and Futurism” which gives you a good indication of Phoenix’s preoccupations. If I described it as slideshow of a guy showing photos of vintage cars he’s owned over the years and telling anecdotes about them you might justifiably say “Um … no thanks” – but due to Phoenix’s skills as an effortless raconteur and his hilarious queer eye, it’s insanely entertaining.

/ The sparkly Charles Phoenix /

/ Birmingham's The Terrorsaurs (only decent shot I got of them at Viva Las Vegas!}

Later that night I was watching vicious instrumental surf-punk trio The Terrorsaurs from Birmingham (as in West Midlands in the UK, not Alabama). The musicians’ faces obscured with hideously leering, horned monster masks, they absolutely raged through their set and were one of my favourite finds of this year’s Viva Las Vegas.  (Since returning to London I’ve seen them play here once too). While The Terrorsaurs were still playing, Sally and Paddy arrived and found me by the front of the stage. These two are much-loved and missed old London friends who upped sticks and re-located to North Carolina (of all places!) when Paddy got a job offer there last year. This was the duo’s first time at Viva Las Vegas (Kevin and I took them under our wings!) and my first chance to see them since May 2016. What a great reunion! Kevin and I would spend the rest of the weekend partying with Paddy and Sally. (As I’ve said many times before: my main motivation for attending Viva Las Vegas so many times is the people!).

/ Reunion with Paddy and Sally! /

Much later we all wandered down to the casino to find somewhere quieter to get a drink. (This was the night the over-crowding really began to become an issue). We were drinking at a relatively deserted bar of The Orleans; I glanced over and got instant goose bumps. Seated right in front of us, Exene Cervenka was playing one of the slot machines. We began debating what to do and how best to approach her. Exene was accompanied by the same female companion from earlier. While we were talking, they suddenly looked up at us suspiciously. You could sense them realising that Exene had been recognised by potential X fans. The female friend‘s demeanor suddenly turned protective.  She began hovering around Exene almost like a body guard and was shooting us daggers with her eyes. This was not looking good! Finally, I went to the bar to order more drinks. Exene’s friend had temporarily vanished and the coast was clear. Even though Exene wasn’t exactly radiating approachability, I was standing so close to her I thought, “Fuck it – I’m going to push my luck!” I approached her and asked, “I’m at the bar anyway. Can I get you a drink while I’m there, Exene?” And – it was a bit tepid, brief and underwhelming. Exene was perfectly polite and friendly enough but she didn’t really engage, seemed wary and clearly wasn’t in the mood to speak to admirers. She thanked me but demurred, saying she was sticking to water. I asked her what brought her to Viva Las Vegas, was she performing here? She explained No, it had nothing to do with Viva Las Vegas – that was just a coincidence. A punk club had flown Exene over to do a guest DJ’ing spot the night before. She was flying back to Los Angeles the next morning. I told her we’d met once before – years ago with Lydia Lunch in London. “That’s cool” was all she said in response. And that was pretty much it. Her friend reappeared. When the conversation faltered I said goodbye and went back to Kevin, Sally and Paddy.

/ This is what 61 looks like! Present-day Exene. This is very much how she looked when we encountered her at The Orleans. What a woman! /

My main impression: it was a relief to see Exene looking healthy and fit after some troubled years. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2009 (since then Exene has stated that was a misdiagnosis and that she may have been suffering from lupus instead). More recently, Exene catastrophically outed herself as a “truther” or conspiracy theorist and offered some pretty distasteful and paranoid views online (as in: mass shooting sprees are hoaxes cooked-up by the mainstream media to take away peoples’ guns).  It led to a rash of scornful articles questioning Exene’s sanity and has done her reputation and mystique considerable (irreparable?) damage even amongst hardcore X fans. (All her social media accounts are now seemingly deleted – presumably by X’s management in an act of damage limitation). Also: an American friend who shares some mutual acquaintances with Exene hinted at possible alcohol or drug issues (to paraphrase: “Oh, Exene was a mess for years.” She expressed relief when I mentioned Exene was drinking water rather than alcohol). So, while we didn’t exactly “click”, it was reassuring to see Exene on apparently good form. I hope my punk heroine has found some hard-won serenity.

/ Exene playing the slot machine at The Orleans: the closest thing we got to a photo of her [pic by Kevin] / 

/ Reunion with Jorge from LA (aka DJ Zorch) /

Saturday 15 April: We all convened again Saturday morning for the Viva Las Vegas car show. Sally is an unrepentant veteran Goth and getting her photo taken with Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, the beloved cult figure, campy horror movie hostess and Mistress of the Dark) at the car show was a priority. I’d warned Sally that when I got my photo taken with Elvira at the car show in 2011 the queue was long and I had to stand in the baking sun for ages, so we got there early. In fact, Sally and Paddy were at the front of line! Being prompt pays off. The scuttlebutt amongst people queuing was that Peterson would be appearing as “herself” and not costumed and bewigged as Elvira. When she eventually arrived (15-minutes late like a proper show business diva), she was indeed not in the Elvira persona. But the preternaturally youthful 65-year old redhead was so irresistibly glamorous (in a clinging leopard-print dress, black cardigan and dark Italian movie starlet-style sunglasses) no one could possibly object. (Although it made me extra-thankful when I met Peterson, she was dressed as Elvira!). The photo of Sally and Peterson together is adorable (and cost a pretty penny; for the privilege, you’re obligated to purchase some wildly over-priced Elvira merchandise first) but I did think it was kind of a drag that Peterson kept her sunglasses on for it. Later when we passed her autograph booth again Peterson had removed her sunglasses and I thought, why couldn’t you have done that for Sally?

/ Two fabulous babes: Sally and Cassandra Peterson at the car show /

/ My own shot with Elvira in 2011 /

Our next red-hot camera session (as Dawn Davenport would say) was with the impossibly glamorous and iconic 89-year old striptease queen Tempest Storm, whose booth was almost next door to Peterson’s.  What a woman! She is truly the living, breathing embodiment of burlesque history who's brushed shoulders with (and outlived) the likes of Russ Meyer and Bettie Page. When we were posing together, it suddenly dawned on me: my hand is on Tempest Storms back! Up close, I revered Storm’s elegant poise, commitment to glamour and impeccable grooming (that mane of perfectly teased and tousled auburn hair!), but I’d be lying if I claimed we “connected.” She’s polite but sort of looks straight through you with a vague beauty pageant contestant’s smile. I think Tempest Storm does a lot of these autograph sessions and people have become interchangeable to her. (As you can see from the photos, Sally has Bettie Page-style bangs. In retrospect I wish I'd asked Tempest Storm, for the photo of you two together, can you slap Sally around and pull her hair like you did with Bettie Page in the 1955 "stag film" Teaserama? Let's recreate that moment!).

/ Above: Elvis Presley and Tempest Storm (a vision in gold lamé) in the mid-fifties /

/ Red-hot camera session with burlesque royalty Tempest Storm! Top: Tempest and I. Bottom: Tempest and Sally /

/ One suave fuck! James Intveld at the car show. (He, of course, provided the vocals that Johnny Depp lip-synched to in the 1990 John Waters juvenile delinquent musical Cry-baby /

From there we caught some of rockabilly heartthrob James Intveld’s set and then explored all the vendors (the car show is browsing heaven). That was pretty much it for the car show. As per tradition, I quite literally got a farmer’s red neck (and forehead). We didn’t stick around to watch all the bands play in the blistering heat. I would have loved to seen Los Straitjackets again but I’ve seen them many times before. And I heard very mixed reports about 72-year old headliner Brenda "Little Miss Dynamite" Lee (I get the impression it was like a cruise ship cabaret show for senior citizens. It must have felt hallucinatory-level kitsch to hear “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in April).

/ Treasures at the vendors at the car show. (That pink flamingo! The poodles! Granny chic at its best!) /

/ Macabre detail at car show /

/ Above and below: car show /

Later, back inside at The Orleans’ Bailiwick pub we watched The Desperados from California. What an incredibly exciting band! Their set was like an assault or an attack! The thuggish Desperados approach primal rockabilly as if it’s 1950s punk – exactly the approach I love. And their moody black-clad frontman Slim Cervantes really knows how to crank up the tension, drama and menace. (It doesn’t hurt that the band is young, cute and Latino). They were followed by the ominous, rumbling twang-y surf rock of The Aquasonics.

/ The Desperados /

/ These two sullen rebels are bad news! They are real pieces of work! Sally and Kevin at The Orleans’ Bailiwick pub /

/ The fabulous Sweetpea and I at The Orleans’ Bailiwick pub /

/ For the connoisseurs of firm male flesh out there: check out this prime beefcake specimen, built like a young Marlon Brando. (He was watching Johnny Devil and His Sins in the ballroom at the time) /

The veteran first lady of rockabilly Wanda Jackson headlined Saturday night. (This was one of the in-demand shows which over-crowding prevented loads of people from seeing. As Viva troupers, Kevin and I had staked a spot near the front well in advance). I hadn’t seen Jackson (now 79 years old) perform in several years and it was undeniably melancholic to see that in the meantime she’s grown significantly physically frailer.  While the crew was setting-up the stage I noticed there was a stool positioned next to the microphone – a worrying sign. Sure enough, Jackson had to be carefully guided by the elbow onto the stage and to the chair, and sang sitting down. Apparently backstage she relied on a wheelchair. It reminded me of seeing late-period rhythm and blues belter Ruth Brown (aka Hairspray’s Motormouth Mabelle) when she was incapacitated, or the ailing and immobile Little Richard in 2013 or Little Jimmy Scott towards the end when his bodyguard would carry him onto the stage like a doll. (When Pal and I last saw raspy-voiced punk diva Marianne Faithfull perform in London, post-broken hip, in 2016 it was a similar situation). Like Bette Davis once said: ageing isn’t for sissies.

But then the band kicked into the first track -  and reassuringly Jackson’s rasping vocal onslaught is still ferocious, the trademark bouffant hair is still jet-black and gravity-defying and she still radiates warmth and unaffected sweetness. The tight set encompassed all her late fifties and early sixties rock’n’roll greats: she opened with a rampaging “Riot in Cell Block #9” and encored with “Let’s Have a Party” and included “Fujiyama Mama” and Jackson’s defining 1961 masterpiece “Funnel of Love” in between. She also incorporated a tribute to ex-boyfriend Elvis (a smouldering cover of “Heartbreak Hotel”), gospel and Country & Western (on the country tune Jackson employed effortless, note-perfect yodelling). The high-point, though was Jackson’s interpretation of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” from her Jack White-produced 2011 “comeback” album The Party Ain’t Over. Jackson admitted she and White clashed over the inclusion of the song (it was his idea). “It’s too sexually explicit and it’s not age-appropriate!” she had argued. Afterwards, she admitted it’s since become her favourite from the whole album. The song pushes Jackson out of her comfort zone and – to her eternal credit - she rises to the challenge, investing Winehouse’s words with heart-wrenching emotional torment (she packs the lyric “I cheated myself / like I knew I would” with soulful regret). Jackson transforms “You Know I’m No Good” into a timeless honky tonk angel’s lament, redolent of neon signs, jukeboxes and barstool mamas crying into their beer. Who knows if I’ll get to see Jackson perform again? (Certainly, she doesn’t appear to be slowing down: next on her schedule was the Nashville Boogie Vintage Weekender in May). If this does wind up being the last time, it sure was a memorable.

/ Sally and Sheila /

/ Jr and Andre /

Sunday 16 April: Ah, the sun-kissed nirvana of the Sunday afternoon Viva Las Vegas pool party. It really is bliss. Reclining in the shade of palm trees on green astro-turf (so much better than actual grass) drinking Bloody Marys and beers with friends to a soundtrack of twangy surf music. And bubbles. (Patrick brought a bubble-blowing machine). Highlights of the pool party: the men’s vintage bathing suit competition (our own Kevin entered in his cabana suit!). Patrick’s inflatable bull (it caused an instant sensation!). After sinking a few Bloody Marys and cans of Budweiser I even splashed around in the pool myself. We split in time for the weekend’s second Charles Phoenix Slideshow later that afternoon. Paddy and Sally were unfamiliar with Phoenix and became instant converts (and Paddy instantly perfected his Charles Phoenix imitation: “I knooooow!”).

Yee-ha! Rich (and inflatable bull) at the pool party /

/ Patrick and Sheila /

/ Sheila and Rich /

/ Prime beefcake at the pool party! Rich and friend /

/ Kevin, Patrick and I /

/ A moment worthy of Vampira or Morticia Addams: Sally's arrival at the pool party /

/ Sheila and Rich /

/  Jayne Mansfield lives! (When I spoke to the blonde babe afterwards she admitted the styling of her beehive wig was inspired by Jayne's in The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield) /

/ Sheila and I /

/ Andre and Jr (fresh from the men's vintage swimsuit competition) /

/ Kevin embracing the spirit of the pool party /

/ At a certain point the inflatable bull got tossed into the pool. It caused a sensation! /

/ Watching Charles Phoenix's slideshow post-pool party (I had no time to change out of my swimming shorts! /

/ Charles Phoenix slideshow /

/ Treasures at the Viva Las Vegas vendors. Sally totally should have bought the horror movie parasol /

/ Treasures at the Viva Las Vegas vendors: a vintage black leather Persil leather jacket with animal print inserts /

/ Treasures at the Viva Las Vegas vendors. I've been after the perfect biker-style jean jacket with ripped-off sleeves for ages. These fit the bill - but they are high-end ultra-collectable vintage denim vests from the late fifties / early sixties that once actually belonged to juvenile delinquent gang members and cost hundreds of dollars! /

I entirely missed this year’s jiving competition – the ballroom was so jammed I couldn't see the dancers anyway. But while that was going in, I caught Vicky Tafoya and The Big Beat’s set. I’ve admired big-haired rockabilly chanteuse Tafoya (and her belting voice, steeped in fifties doo-wop and sixties girl group) ever since I first started going to Viva Las Vegas (she’s based in Los Angeles and seems to play annually) and it’s great to see how her fame seems to grow every time. This year she was treated like a superstar, with throngs of people waiting to have their photos taken with her afterwards. Tafoya’s extreme and distinctive trademark look is sensational. With her huge lacquered pompadour of raven hair and false eyelashes (so thick and long they’re like black tarantulas), she looks like an escapee from a John Waters film. In a fairer world, Vicky Tafoya should be a big breakout star already. Fans of female singers like Amy Winehouse or Holly Golightly really need to discover her. 

/ The sole shot I managed to take of Latina glamour queen Vicky Tafoya didn't really do her justice ... /

That's some serious false eye lashes Vicky Tafoya's sporting

/ ... this one is much better! Borrowed it from someone else's flickr album! /

The rest of the night was low-key. After so much sun, booze and late nights, by the last night of Viva I was feeling fried. We watched Abby Girl and The Real Deal at The Bailiwick pub. (Seriously, we saw way more bands than this account suggests! It’s hard to keep track. We definitely saw Deke Dickerson's R&B revue, Lance Lipinsky and The Lovers, Johnny Devil and His Sins and plenty of others!). This was our group’s last proper chance to hang out and say goodbye: Kevin was splitting fairly early for New Orleans the next morning and Sally and Paddy (who were staying in a different hotel) were heading back to North Carolina.

/ Bleary-eyed and exhausted final Viva Las Vegas portrait. (I'm speaking of myself here. Sally looks radiant!) /

Monday 17 April: Monday afternoon found me waiting in the departure lounge at McCarran International Airport for my flight home and listening to a piped-in soundtrack of vintage wall-to-wall middle of the road muzak (“If Not for You” by Olivia Newton-John. “Deep Purple” by The Osmonds). Then out of nowhere came “Do the Clam” by Elvis (from his 1965 film Girl Happy).  What a perfect coda to Viva Las Vegas 2017!

Further reading:

Blogs from my previous Viva Las Vegas weekenders: 2010201120122013 and 2015.

See all my photos from Viva Las Vegas 2017 on my flickr album here

For all your camp, kitsch and vintage homoerotica needs, follow me on tumblr!